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Unequal domestic water use is exacerbating water crises

20 April 2023
An international team of climate researchers developed a new model to quantify the unequal domestic water use of different social groups which led to a water crises in Cape Town, South Africa. In 2018, Cape Town came perilously close to reaching 'day zero', when the city's taps would dry up following a long-standing drought.

The scientists, affiliated with VU Amsterdam, Uppsala University, University of Manchester, and University of Reading recently published their findings in the scientific journal Nature Sustainability.  

Socio-economic inequalities
Drought is a chronic problem and also has been highly afflicting Europe and the Netherlands over the last years. Several scientific studies have shown that the increase in greenhouse gases emissions linked to the use of fossil fuels, deforestation, among others, had a significant impact on climate change. Climate change is considered as the main cause that is threatening the availability of water resources. However, scientific studies do not take into consideration the key role played by socio-economic inequalities in exacerbating urban water crises.

Highest incomes consume the most
One of the authors, Maurizio Mazzoleni at VU Amsterdam says: “The results of our model showed that privileged social groups make up less than 14 percent of households in the city but consume 51 percent of the water destined for "non-basic" purposes such as the irrigation of residential gardens, swimming pools, and other uses. On the other hand, the social classes with the lowest incomes make up 62 percent of the total and consume only 27 percent of the water resource for essential activities such as washing and drinking. The greater economic availability of privileged groups allows them to cope with the reduced availability of public water by withdrawing water from private water sources, such as rainwater harvesting systems or wells located in their household premises, improving their level of water security after a drought.”

Rethink natural disasters
It is essential to preserve the water resources available by changing the lifestyles of the more privileged classes, limiting the use of water for services, as well as redistributing income and water resources in a more equitable way. Mazzoleni: “Unfortunately, these strategies are in contrast with the prevailing political-economic system, based on the excessive exploitation of natural resources and on the exclusion, segregation, and marginalization of the disadvantaged classes. For this reason, politicians and decision-makers must rethink natural disasters as a socio-environmental problem and propose reforms aimed at addressing inequal water consumption.”