In recent years, dozens of metropolitan areas have begun facing severe water shortages due to both natural causes - droughts - and artificial causes, i.e. unsustainable water use.
A new peer-reviewed study published in Nature Sustainability, aims to show how social inequalities play a central role in the way such crises develop.
Researchers used the Cape Town metropolitan area in South Africa as a case study "to illustrate how unsustainable water use by the elite can exacerbate urban water crises at least as much as climate change or population growth."
Cape Town is home to over one million households, 1.4% of which are classified as "elite," 12.3% are upper-middle income, 24.8% are lower-middle income, 40.5% are lower-income and 21% live in "informal housing" - shacks and non-standard housing at the edges of the city.
The upper-middle class and the elite tend to live in spacious homes with gardens and private swimming pools. Those in the lower echelons, according to the study, do not have taps or toilets inside their homes.
The researchers found that most of the water used by the middle and upper classes is used for non-basic needs - garden irrigation, swimming, decorative water features and more. Furthermore, despite comprising only 13.7% of the population, the elite and upper-middle classes use 51% of all water consumed by the entire city. Meanwhile, lower-income and informal households constitute 61.5% of Cape Town's total population but consume only 27.3% of the city's water.
"These excessive and uneven consumption patterns are rooted in the modern political–economic system, which fosters consumerism in the name of individual freedom, financial merits and economic growth," wrote study authors.
Future projections, according to the study, show a rapidly increasing risk of water crisis for many cities worldwide. Current water conservation policies focus on bolstering water infrastructure and increasing water supply, which are "counterproductive as they expand the water footprint of cities while perpetuating unequal levels of consumption."
Researchers conclude that, rather than putting all eggs in the basket of ecological conservation and increase of water supply, municipal and national governments focus on equality in water use among different socioeconomic classes.
Global water security and the United Nations
The United Nations used its first conference on water security in almost half a century on Wednesday to exhort governments to better manage one of humanity's shared resources.
A quarter of the world's population relies on unsafe drinking water while half lacks basic sanitation, the UN said. Meanwhile, nearly three-quarters of recent disasters have been related to water.
"We are draining humanity's lifeblood through vampiric overconsumption and unsustainable use, and evaporating it through global heating," said UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres.