By Marcelle Dibrell
An April 10 study, published in the journal Nature Sustainability, has concluded that urban water crises are driven by unsustainable water consumption by the very rich, largely through non-basic water uses such as garden watering, car washing, and, of course, their swimming pools.
The water shaming story — based on a study in Cape Town, South Africa — was picked up by dozens of media outlets, all ready to point the finger at swimming pools. The Washington Post ran a story called “Rich people’s swimming pools are fueling water crises in cities, study says.” The Smithsonian Magazine stated “Wealthy Residents’ Pools and Gardens Are Driving Water Crises.” NPR, The Guardian, Time, and many others also ran a version of the story, undoing in a couple of days the years of work that swimming pool advocacy groups have spent educating the public.
The report was based on a Cape Town study where, “due to stark socioeconomic inequalities, urban elites are able to overconsume water while excluding less-privileged populations from basic access.”
“The highly unequal metropolitan
According to the CPSA, “On average, the first year of a pool’s water use, even including the filling, will use 32,000 gallons while a 1,200-square-foot lawn uses approximately 44,000 gallons in the same period.” area of Cape Town serves as a case in point to illustrate how unsustainable water use by the elite can exacerbate urban water crises at least as much as climate change or population growth,” the authors wrote.
In 2017, amid a severe drought, the city of Cape Town got significant media coverage as it approached a true water catastrophe, when officials announced that “Day Zero” was approaching. On that day, reservoirs were expected to run so low that the taps would literally run dry in residents’ homes. To avoid that day of reckoning, the city launched a belated effort to fix up long-neglected pipes, which were believed to be leaking up to one third of the city’s water. Thought to be equally important was aggressive public messaging on water use, enforced essentially by public shaming, which limited water use to 13 gallons per person per day. (The average American uses 82 gallons a day).
Day Zero never arrived, but today, Cape Town’s water situation remains bleak. Officials worry that climate change and population expansion could bring future calamities to the city.
To that end, the authors of the present study sought to analyze its residents’ water use and found, unsurprisingly, that its wealthier residents use more water.
The authors estimated the water use of five different socioeconomic groups in the region, dividing them into “Elite,” “Upper-Middle Income,” “Lower Middle Income,” “Lower Income,” and “Informal Dwellers” (shack dwellers). The study found that the two highest earning groups, which make up less than 14 percent of the city’s households, consumed 51 percent of its water. The two lowest earning groups, who make up 62 percent of the population, consumed 27 percent of the city’s water.
The authors state that income levels, type and size of houses, and amenities are the keys to explaining the higher level of water consumption among the privileged social groups.
In a city like Cape Town, should this really be so surprising? Here, the authors are comparing the water use of the wealthy with the water use of people who don’t even have running water in their homes, forced to retrieve it by the bucket from a common well. If you are carrying your daily water by the bucket, of course you’re using less!
The authors note that during the “Day Zero” crisis, the per-household water use of upper-middle-income groups fell from 291 gallons per household per day to 185 gallons per household per day. (The average American family uses more than 300 gallons of water per day.) For Cape Town’s upper-middle-class residents, this represents a 36-percent decrease when the times got tough, which the authors note was a higher reduction in water use compared to lowerincome households. The authors are quick to point out that they managed this reduction through suspending non-basic water uses such as garden watering, washing cars, and filling swimming pools.
By way of comparison, let’s turn our attention to water use on America’s West Coast and how Californians have responded to drought. A 2011 study sponsored by the California Department of Water Resources looked at the average California single-family daily water use from 2005 through 2010. For the South Coast Region of California — the area that includes Los Angeles, Orange, and San Diego Counties — the study found that the average household used 378 gallons of water per day.
In 2022, a time period for which we can all agree California was experiencing a severe drought, an analysis of data supplied by the California State Water Resources Control Board showed that the average per-household water use for the same region was down to 246 gallons per day — a 35-percent reduction.
In other words, the upper middleincome groups of Cape Town responded to drought just about like an average Southern Californian.
During drought years, Southern Californians showed off their brown lawns like badges of honor. They took three-minute showers and bought smart dishwashers, washing machines, and low-flow toilets. They drove their dusty cars with pride. But there was really no need to give up their pools, despite appearances.
The California Pool and Spa Association has spent years educating the public on how much water a typical swimming pool actually uses.
Lest we forget, the following facts are from the CPSA: “A well-maintained pool or spa uses significantly less water per day than an irrigated lawn. In a given year, an irrigated lawn will use approximately 49 inches of water while a pool only uses 39.6 inches – if you have walkways and decking surrounding your pool, the average drops down to 20 gallons of water per year. Even building and filling a new pool requires less water than a lawn. On average, the first year of a pool’s water use, even including the filling, will use 32,000 gallons while a 1,200-square-foot lawn uses approximately 44,000 gallons in the same period.”