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Swimming pools leave poor communities without basic access to water

A new study reveals that social inequalities are the primary cause of unequal access to water, resulting in the urban water crises worldwide, rather than environmental factors such as climate change or urban population growth. 

The research, published in the journal Nature Sustainability, highlights the alarming trend of rich elites with large swimming pools and well-maintained lawns consuming excessive amounts of water, leaving poorer communities without basic access to water in cities across the globe.

The research team centered their study on Cape Town, South Africa, a city where many underprivileged people live without taps or toilets and use their limited water resources for drinking and hygiene. 

The study also identified similar water scarcity issues and unequal access to water 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.

“Climate change and population growth mean that water is becoming a more precious resource in big cities, but we have shown that social inequality is the biggest problem for poorer people getting access to water for their everyday needs,” said study co-author Professor Hannah Cloke, a hydrologist at the University of Reading.

She added that over 80 big cities worldwide have suffered water shortages due to droughts and unsustainable water use in the past 20 years, a crisis that could worsen as the gap between the rich and poor widens globally.

Elected officials mostly ignore need for access to water

The study, led by Dr. Elisa Savelli at Uppsala University in Sweden, analyzed the domestic water use of urban residents in Cape Town to understand how different social classes consume water. The researchers identified five social groups ranging from “elite” (people living in spacious homes with large gardens and swimming pools) to “informal dwellers” (those living in shacks at the city’s edge).

The experts found that elite and upper-middle-income households, which make up less than 14% of Cape Town’s population, consume over half (51%) of the city’s water. By contrast, informal and lower-income households, accounting for 62% of the city’s population, consume only 27% of Cape Town’s water.

The study points out that current efforts to manage water supplies in water-scarce cities mostly focus on technical solutions, such as developing more efficient water infrastructure. 

However, the research team suggests that these reactive strategies, which concentrate on maintaining and increasing water supply, are insufficient and counterproductive. Instead, they propose a more proactive approach aimed at reducing unsustainable water consumption among the elites to ensure a fairer distribution of water resources in cities.

Climate change and water availability

Climate change is expected to significantly impact the access to water globally in the coming decades. The consequences of climate change on water resources will vary depending on the region, but some of the general impacts include:

  1. Changes in precipitation patterns: Climate change is expected to alter precipitation patterns, leading to more extreme events such as intense storms and prolonged droughts. Some regions may experience increased rainfall, while others may suffer from decreased precipitation. This will affect the availability of water for agricultural, industrial, and domestic use.
  2. Melting glaciers and ice caps: As global temperatures rise, glaciers and ice caps will continue to melt, resulting in increased river flows in the short term but decreased long-term water availability as these ice reserves deplete.
  3. Reduced snowpack: Warming temperatures may cause a decrease in snow accumulation in mountainous regions, reducing the snowpack that serves as a crucial water source for many regions during the warmer months.
  4. Increased evaporation: Higher temperatures will lead to increased evaporation from surface water bodies and soil, which could result in lower river flows and decreased water availability for various purposes, including irrigation.
  5. Groundwater depletion: In some regions, climate change may exacerbate groundwater depletion due to increased demand for water in agriculture, industry, and domestic use as surface water availability decreases. This could lead to the over-extraction of groundwater resources and long-term water scarcity issues.
  6. Saltwater intrusion: Rising sea levels can cause saltwater intrusion into coastal aquifers, contaminating freshwater resources and reducing their availability for human consumption, agriculture, and other uses.
  7. Water quality degradation: Climate change can impact water quality through increased water temperatures, which can result in algal blooms and low oxygen levels in water bodies. Additionally, extreme weather events, such as floods, can lead to increased sediment and pollutant loads in rivers and lakes.

Adaptation and mitigation strategies will be essential to address these challenges and ensure the availability of water resources and equal access to water for future generations. These strategies may include improving water-use efficiency, investing in water infrastructure, promoting sustainable water management practices, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions to limit the severity of climate change impacts.


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