Cape Town’s water crisis worsened by the rich, study finds

Wealthy households use more than half the city’s water, say authors of article published in leading scientific journal

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As Day Zero loomed in 2018 following three years of severe drought, with the City of Cape Town imposing strict water restrictions, people lined up to collect water from springs such as this one in St. James, originally constructed for the watering of horses. Photo: Steve Kretzmann

  • ​​​​​​A study of Cape Town’s water consumption has found that rich households use drinking water for swimming pools while poor residents struggle to meet their basic needs.
  • The City’s efforts to stave off Day Zero left the rich relatively untouched while the poor, who use much less water, became more water insecure.
  • Models show inequality is a bigger threat to water sustainability than either climate change or population growth.

Wealthy households make up less than 14% of Cape Town’s population, but use more than half its domestic water, making their consumption a greater threat to sustainable water use than either climate change or population growth.

This is one of the findings from a recently published study of Cape Town’s domestic water consumption, which finds that the Day Zero crisis of 2018 was largely due to the high water consumption of wealthy households while poor households struggled to meet their most basic water needs.

Urban water crises driven by elites’ unsustainable consumption is the title of the study by Elisa Savelli, Maurizio Mazzoleni, Giuliano Di Baldassarre, Hannah Cloke, and Maria Rusca, published in Nature Sustainability online on 10 April. The authors are from Uppsala University in Sweden, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam in the Netherlands, and University of Reading and the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom.

The authors use Cape Town as a model to “simulate different consumption patterns across an unequal urban space”. Cape Town is one of more than 80 cities around the world that have faced severe water shortages in the last 20 years due to drought and unsustainable water use, they say. Urban water shortages are expected to become more common, with more than a billion people in cities expected to experience water shortages “in the near future”.

The study argues that urban water crises are not just the result of drought, but also of social inequality. Wealthy urban households use drinking water for swimming pools and gardens while the socially, economically, and politically disadvantaged city residents are excluded from basic access to water.

“Conditions of water scarcity and limited access to water result from the prevailing politics and power dynamics that govern the city,” state the authors.

Inequality mirrored in water consumption

Rather than looking at overall average water consumption in the city from 2008 to 2019 – which includes the drought of 2011 and the unprecedented water shortages following the 2015 -2017 drought - the authors looked at water consumption at household level, and then aligned the households within five distinctive social groups as defined by the Western Cape government: elite, upper-middle-income, lower-middle-income, lower income, and informal areas.

They found that while elite and upper-middle-income households made up 1.4% and 12.3% of the city population, they used 51% of the city’s water.

Households in lower income and informal areas, however, made up just over 40% and 21% of the population respectively, but only used 27.3% of the city’s water.

Lower-middle-income households, making up 24.8% of the population, used 21.3% of the water.

These “stark differences” in patterns of water consumption are “largely confirmed by literature from Cape Town and other cities,” state the authors. Results showed most of the water used by the elite and upper-middle-income households was not for basic needs, but for swimming pools, gardens, and “additional water fixtures”. Meanwhile, most of the water used by the lower income and informal households was for drinking, hygiene, and livelihood.

And while the severe water restrictions imposed toward the end of the 2015 -2017 drought did not affect the ability of wealthy households to meet their basic water needs, poorer households who already struggled to obtain their daily water needs, used even less.

The drought restrictions included increased water tariffs, fines for overconsumption or illicit water use, the installation of water management devices to restrict household flow, and withdrawal of the free water allocation to households not classified as indigent.

The authors found that the increase in tariffs with higher rates charged to heavier consumers in order to cross-subsidise light users, “was only partially successful in meeting the needs of the poorest population”.

“Indeed, low-income users could not afford the revised tariff,” they say, adding that often people living in overcrowded units where more than eight people shared a tap ended up being charged unaffordable water bills and having fines levied against them. Furthermore, after the drought, increased water tariffs then became the new normal.

Responses to Day Zero

Elite household consumption ahead of ‘Day Zero’ fell from 2,542 litres a day to 1,103 litres a day, and upper-middle-income household consumption fell from 1,604 litres per day to 699 litres per day, largely due to stopping water use for luxuries.

Lower income households reduced water usage from an already low 197 litres per day, to 101 litres per day.

The research showed that wealthy households sought alternatives to municipal water, such as bottled and spring water in the short term, and the sinking of boreholes and installation of rainwater harvesting systems in the long term.

“By contrast, low-income areas do not have the resources to cope with tariff increases or to access private water wells.”

The authors note that private borehole use by the wealthy reduces the groundwater reserves which belong to all.

A woman uses a communal tap in an informal settlement in Cape Town to meet her household’s water needs. Informal households make up 21% of Cape Town’s population but are responsible for just 2.9% of the city’s water consumption. Photo: Steve Kretzmann

Threat to sustainability

Along with the production of mathematical models that can be applied to water consumption in other cities, including models for climate change and population growth, the study revealed that high water use by the elite and the upper-middle-income groups was the biggest threat to the long term sustainability of the urban water system.

“There is nothing natural about urban elites over consuming and over exploiting water resources and the water marginalisation of other social groups. Instead, water inequalities and their unsustainable consequences are products of history, politics and power.”

What was required was “reimagining a society in which elitist overconsumption at the expense of other citizens is not tolerated”.

Debunking the “average “

University of the Western Cape history lecturer Koni Benson, who conducts water mapping research across Cape Town with the African Water Commons Collective, said the study echoed the collective’s own findings.

“We need to move to a discussion of water redistribution - a plan of action that takes into account historic dispossession, where people have been living under Day Zero conditions for the past 300 years,” said Benson.

She said one of the most important things about the study was that it debunked the idea of average water use. The City’s statistics that combined all households into one average meant those who were earning the least and using the least water, made up for those using the most.

Precious drinking water was not only being used for luxury activities by wealthy individuals, but was used in industry when recycled water could be used if the City’s sewage treatment plants were working properly, she said.

TOPICS:  Water

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