Swimming pools of the rich make cities thirsty

People resting in a pool area

The researchers found that urban elites overconsume water for their own personal leisure, such as filling their swimming pools, watering their gardens or washing their cars.

Rich elites with large swimming pools and well-maintained lawns are leaving poorer communities without basic access to water in cities across the world. New research, led by Uppsala University, published in Nature Sustainability has found social inequalities are driving urban water crises more than environmental factors, such as climate change or the growth of urban populations.

Portrait Elisa

Elisa Savelli. Photo Mikael Wallerstedt

“Our study argues that the only way to preserve available water resources is by altering privileged lifestyles, limiting water use for amenities, as well as redistributing income and water resources more equally. Future water security and drought resilience strategies should be more proactive and able to recognise and address the long-term inequalities and unsustainable patterns that have engender urban water crises like the one in Cape Town”, says Dr Elisa Savelli at Uppsala University who led the study.

The study is made with colleagues at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, Netherlands, the University of Manchester, UK and University of Reading, UK. They have developed a model to analyse the domestic water use of urban residents in Cape Town to understand how different social classes consume water. They found that urban elites overconsume water for their own personal leisure, such as filling their swimming pools, watering their gardens or washing their cars.

Elite to informal dwellers

The model includes five social groups, ranging from ‘elite’ (people who live in spacious homes with large gardens and swimming pools) to ‘informal dwellers’ (people who tend to live in shacks at the edge of the city).

Elite and upper-middle-income households make up less than 14 percent of Cape Town’s population but use more than half (51 percent) of the water consumed by the entire city. Informal households and lower-income households account for 62 percent of the city’s population, but consume just 27 percent of Cape Town’s water.

The research team focused on the unequal metropolitan area of Cape Town, South Africa, where a severe drought unfolded into an unprecedented water crisis, widely known as Day Zero. The model simulates the uneven water consumption across Cape Town’s different social groups before, during, and after the occurrence of the drought.

Low-income residents more vulnerable

The model’s results indicate that low-income residents are significantly more vulnerable to drought and water crises than the elite, who can afford tariff increases, as well as access and develop alternative water sources.

The researcher also highlighted similar issues in 80 cities worldwide, including London, Miami, Barcelona, Beijing, Tokyo, Melbourne, Istanbul, Cairo, Moscow, Bangalore, Chennai, Jakarta, Sydney, Maputo, Harare, Sao Paulo, Mexico City and Rome.

“Even though our study has been built upon Cape Town’s socio-economic and hydrological features, the modelled urban-water dynamics are very much adaptable to other cities characterised by socio-economic inequalities and where households have access to both public and private water sources”, says Savelli.

The researchers argue that current efforts to manage water supplies in water-scarce cities mostly focus on technical solutions, such as developing more efficient water infrastructure. These reactive strategies, which focus on maintaining and increasing water supply, are insufficient and counterproductive, because they address the symptoms and not the root causes of the crises - the research team suggest. Instead, they suggest that a more proactive approach, that tackles inequalities and reduces unsustainable water consumption among elites, would be more effective in addressing future water crises.

Elisa Savelli concludes by stating: "There is nothing natural about urban elites over consuming and overexploiting water resources and the water marginalisation of other social groups. Instead, water inequalities and their unsustainable consequences, are products of our political-economic system. Thus, the only way to counteract the unsustainable and unjust patterns of elites is by changing this system and reimagining a society in which elitist over-consumption at the expense of other citizens or the environment is not tolerated".

Elin Bäckström


Savelli E., et al; 'Urban water crises driven by elites’ unsustainable consumption', Nature Sustainability. DOI: 10.1038/s41893-023-01100-0, https://www.nature.com/articles/s41893-023-01100-0

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