July 01, 2015

Water and Inequality

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

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:

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.

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Source: nasa.gov

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?

Comments

Enlightening article concerning the relationship between water, wealth and inequality. Growing up on a small farm in the south taught me the high value and importance of water. Although my family was one of the fortunate few in our community, which had access to public water sources, our main source continued to be well-water.

No rain, no water. On a small farm never would a thought come to mind that would have tempted you to use water in any other way than what was necessary.

I must admit after leaving the south and moving up the social economic ladder my value for water has taken a downturn. The financial ability to purchase bottled water as well as water the lawn at the first hint of brown is proof of that.

After reading your article, I will have to rethink my personal use of water. Clearly when moving up the social economic ladder as individuals we still have to give thought and consideration to how our actions affect others and possibly cause environmental harm.

We inevitably take the source of water for granted because we were born into a luxury of being able to live among clean water. Everyone has the right to water, however it’s everywhere for us to be bought and in our very own house. If you were in a third world country and first witnessed clean and pure water how would you feel?

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