Water and Inequality
All living beings need water; it is perhaps the most universal of all needs. Water is also one of the key markers of inequality, locally and globally. It may be easily taken for granted, but when there is too little or too much water, it usually impacts people disproportionally based on wealth.
Consider the following:
- According to the United Nations, 85 percent of the world’s population lives in the driest part of the world, and 783 million people do not have access to clean water.
- An estimated 147 to 650 million people worldwide are threatened by rising sea levels. Within the top ten countries affected, seven are developing nations with high poverty rates (including Vietnam, India, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Myanmar). The people most affected have the least amount of resources to deal with the consequences; entire communities would need to be relocated as permanent flooding threatens to eliminate land.
- Despite the near universal access to clean water in the United States, in 2012 Americans consumed about 9.67 billion gallons of bottled water, in about 50 billion plastic bottles (of which an estimated 62 percent are not recycled). We have the luxury of spending an average of $1,400 a year per capita on bottled water, when the same amount of water would cost $49 from the tap.
On the local level, California is currently in the midst of a severe drought (I wrote about drought shaming in a previous post), and attempts to reduce water use reveal inequality on a more local scale. The governor has called for cities to reduce water consumption by 25 percent.
While this measure may seem to spread the burden equally, densely populated cities likely use less water per capita. People who live in multifamily housing, for instance, are less likely to have a lawn to water and likely already use less water. The Los Angeles Times reported that 50 to 80 percent of all residential water use involves outdoor watering. If you and members of your community don’t have a lawn and you are already using a limited amount of water—perhaps because you need to keep your water bill down— it is a much larger burden to further reduce water use.
There’s a big difference between using water for ornamental use than for drinking or cleaning—one is a choice, the other is a necessity. Residents who had already been reducing their water use complain that they are being asked to sacrifice even more than those who have not been trying to conserve.
Is water a human right or a commodity to be bought and sold on the open market? The Times reported that high-income cities, like Beverly Hills and Newport Beach, tend to be high water users. Some residents feel justified in watering lush lawns despite the drought. The Washington Post reported on a man from a wealthy enclave who claimed, “we’re not all equal when it comes to water,” upset by the notion that he should let his lawn turn brown during the drought. In his community of Rancho Santa Fe, water use actually increased the month after the governor’s call for reduction.
For people who are accustomed to paying high prices for their homes and other purchases, water may seem like just another commodity. Fines that might encourage many home owners to follow new restrictive watering rules—like $100 for watering your lawn on days and times when you are not supposed to in Los Angeles—are minor inconveniences for people who can easily pay them. That is if they are even fined at all. Higher rates for exceeding rationed water use might not discourage excessive water use for high income people either.
But the difference between water and regular commodities is that water is required to sustain life, and in many places is in limited supply. Our supply and demand-based economy works when new businesses can capitalize on demand—often at increased costs to consumers. It would be a major step backwards if fewer people could afford running water in the United States. The significant public health consequences that would result would be borne largely by low income people.
How else does water reflect inequality? What ideas do you suggest to minimize the relationship between water and inequality?