Inequality is at the core of the water crisis, no matter how much technology we throw at it.

Benedict Robinson for Distilled Post

With less than 1% of the total amount fit for human consumption, water is by far the planet’s most valuable commodity. Gold and diamonds are worthless to a dying population, and no one can hydrate themselves with crude oil. At a base level, water is infinitely more precious than these minerals. So it is naturally alarming to hear that, despite being covered in around 1.4 billion km3 of water, the world is facing a severe water supply crisis. 

This should not be a surprise. The World Economic Forum has named water crises as one of its top five risks every year since 2015; almost half the global population experiences prolonged water scarcity, and 3.5 million die from water-related diseases annually. Recently, academics declared, “Projections of future water demand and drought show an alarming risk of water crisis for many, if not most, cities across the world”. Another even then warned that “the era of cheap and plentiful drinking water has passed”.

Innovation Versus the Water Crisis

In an effort to adjust for the ongoing and intensifying crisis, businesses are investing in new technology to either save water or, crucially, generate safe drinking water from the oceans, Earth’s most abundant resource. 

The Swedish company Orbital Systems, for instance, has created the ‘orbital shower’. This collects and recycles the water from your shower and circles it back around to create a continuous loop of allegedly clean water. This nifty creation boasts water savings of 90% and a financial saving of around $1,000 per year off the household water bill. 

Then there’s the pioneer of generating drinking water out of seawater, Desolenator. This device is a ‘solar desalination’ device and claims to remove 99.9% of salt water contaminants, creating 15 litres of drinkable water a day from the near-endless mass of undrinkable sea. With climate change getting worse, and many communities feeling merely a fraction of the water stress to come, this device could help alleviate the pressures of water shortage without exacerbating the problem elsewhere.

But how much does this help us in the grand scheme of things? 

Well, this technology is impressive and certainly may be necessary in the future. But right now, 15 litres is not a lifesaving amount. It is less than a person can comfortably, or even feasibly, live on. And the orbital shower? A clever contraption, but primarily helps rich, water-connected homes save on their bills. It does not help the global water shortage any more than armbands would help in a tsunami.

But with exorbitant prices (the Desolenator coming in at around $774 and an Orbital Shower almost $5,000), they do, however, highlight one of the most prominent drivers of the water crisis: inequality.

The Global Water Inequality

Despite its universal importance, water does not cost the same for everyone. While we in high-income countries use up to 110 times more water than those in low-income countries, those in slums pay between five and ten times more for it, which often accounts for more than a quarter of their income. On top of that, people, predominantly women and children, in places without adequate infrastructure and clean sanitation regularly walk miles to collect water for the house. Not only does this highlight how much of a luxury tap water actually is, but it also impacts them economically; an estimated 200 million work hours per year are spent collecting water rather than earning. 

Meanwhile, the West and other high-income countries use a ridiculous amount of water in comparison. The UN suggests that the average person needs between 20 and 50 litres of water daily for consumption, hygiene, and sanitation. In contrast, the average American household uses about 2,500 litres every day. While it is hard to compare statistics on ‘people’ with those on ‘household’, unless the average US household consists of 50 people or more, it is safe to assume they use ludicrously more water than required.

And with great decadence comes great waste (as the Spider-man adage doesn’t but should go). Excessive showers pumping out around ten litres of water a minute, leaks and drainage issues which waste over an eighth of a household’s water supply. In fact, a superfluous 95% of US household water usage goes directly down the drain.

Clean drinking water to someone in many low-income countries would represent a significant expense, something to be rationed carefully. It’s maybe even the product of a few hours walking to transport it from source to shelter. Unlike in the developed world, where we literally defecate into a bowl of it and then flush that down with a few more fresh litres in one of modernity’s cruellest ironies.

The Local Water Divide

But water inequality is not limited to the divide between citizens of rich and poor countries. There is also the divide between rich and poor within a country. Wealth is the biggest indicator of water usage, foremost because the majority of it is spent on luxury privileges such as private pools and lawn irrigation, and also because the wealthy are more protected from rate hikes.

In a recent study, researchers using Cape Town, South Africa, as a case study found a shocking disparity in water usage. The wealthiest section of society, around 13.7%, used 50 times more water than the average citizen, causing the researchers to issue the caution: “the unsustainable water consumption by the elite and the upper-middle-income groups constitutes a threat for the long-term sustainability of an urban water system”. 

Though Cape Town was used as a case study, the researchers identified over 80 cities worldwide that have faced severe water shortages and are therefore at risk. And these are not limited to the ‘global south’; London, Miami, and Beijing all make the cut.

These Boreholes are not Your-holes

The wealthy are also at a significant advantage in the water crisis as they can afford ‘private’ water sources, such as the prevalence of boreholes in Cape Town. These are privately owned pumps into the ground to extract confined water and act as a private source of water for the owner. However, as the study mentions, these ‘private’ sources only become private through “a process of enclosure and dispossession of common water resources”. Thus, the water for many urban residents is diverted to a handful, which only serves to worsen the water crisis.

Fundamentally, though new technology is impressive and could well be paramount in preserving a water equilibrium in the future, a far more consequential determinant in the water crisis is the disparity in water usage, water waste, water access, and the affordability of water technology, between the wealthy and the poor. And this is not just a case of a wealthier strata of society using the water that the lower-income population needs, though this is the case, but a case of the water usage of the wealthy aggravating the entire water crisis.

The following statistic perfectly summarises the situation.

The UN estimates that a total of 2.5 billion gallons of water is needed to support the 4.7 billion people below the daily water minimum worldwide. And how much water do we use to irrigate golf courses? 

An estimated 2.5 billion gallons.