Our Burning Planet


Cape Town’s elite suburbs guzzle water at the expense of the poor, new research finds

Cape Town’s elite suburbs guzzle water at the expense of the poor, new research finds

Cape Town’s elite and upper-middle classes, who make up fewer than 15% of households, account for 51.4% of all water consumption in the city.

New research has tracked the correlation between wealth and access to water globally. However, by focusing on Cape Town’s Day Zero crisis, researchers from Uppsala University also show that it is not a lack of infrastructure that keeps the majority of people from accessing appropriate amounts of water.

Rather, it is the elite’s ease and abundance of access to water that depletes water sources for the rest of the population. The findings were published on Monday 10 April in Nature Sustainability.

Head researcher Dr Elisa Savelli chose to focus on socioeconomic disparities as the comparison point for this paper after seeing how the Day Zero drought drastically affected poorer populations, while the wealthier strata were largely unaffected.

“The link between water and inequality is not novel,” Savelli said. “What is novel is the model that we built: we don’t account for the water consumption of the entire city. We split this consumption across [socioeconomic] groups, and we see how each such group is able to impact the water balance of a city.”

Converting a pool into a natural swimming pool is just one way of lessening a household’s water consumption.

The researchers found that the elite and upper-middle classes, which make up fewer than 15% of households, account for 51.4% of all water consumption (public and private).

People enjoy a warm afternoon at Athlone public swimming pool in Cape Town on 12 January 2023. (Photo: Tamsin Metelerkamp)

These inequalities manifest in types of amenities that people have available to them. Within the same city there are people who have pools and lavish gardens, as well as those without access to a proper tap within their household. These amenities contribute to water consumption numbers, since those without gardens or pools have less need for excessive water use.

“Sometimes a swimming pool can reach half or even more than half of the total [water] consumption of a household,” said Savelli. “And the problem is, yes, lack of access, but also too much access. The elite and very wealthy have the financial resources to build… for their household without caring if it might affect the groundwater which could be necessary to serve the population.”

How to help

However, there are ways of turning certain amenities into more environmentally conscious versions of themselves. Converting a pool into a natural swimming pool (NSP) is just one way of lessening a household’s water consumption.

Instead of using the typical chemicals found in a swimming pool, NSPs use natural plants and biomes to create a self-cleaning environment within the water. This reduces pipe erosion, backwash waste, and groundwater pollution, while also replacing harmful construction methods with natural alternatives like wood and superadobe.

“Our water is so good you can actually drink it,” said bioengineer and CEO of Eco Pools Dr Jerome Davis. “And what we do contributes to the whole picture – you can take grey water from the house and channel it through; from the dishwasher, washing machine, showers, put it through the system and then into the toilets.”

Read more in Daily Maverick: Enormous amounts of water are wasted daily — now municipalities are being told to ‘stop the leaks’

Davis’s company focuses on turning a household into an ecosystem, including every facet of water use in recycling. This can not only significantly reduce water costs, but also keeps harmful pool chemicals from leaking into the groundwater and potentially polluting future water resources.

“In order to change the practices of the rich,” said Savelli, “they have to participate in rebuilding a damaged society. Within their neighbourhoods, they could build associations that try to find alternative ways of consuming less water and get together to try to make a difference and build a better city for the future.”

Read more in Daily Maverick: ‘A tsunami of human waste’ – Half of SA’s sewage treatment works are failing, says report

NSPs and household water recycling are just one way of doing this. Savelli also recommended building gardens with local plants, and those which consume less water such as cacti and succulents. Clover is a much more water-friendly alternative to traditional grass lawns, and grows quickly. 

All of these small shifts in the way people build their households and gardens could significantly contribute to better water consumption numbers, hopefully keeping the country from another near-Day Zero situation. OBP/DM

For tickets to Daily Maverick’s The Gathering Earth Edition, click here.


Absa OBP

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Johan Buys says:

    The entire city (rich and poor) has a FAR bigger problem. It drains Boland catchment, defecates in it, and dumps it untreated in the ocean.

    Ask CPT for empirical data of how much raw water it draws from beyond its borders, and how much water it recycles. Very simple question.

  • John Kannemeyer says:

    In as much as I agree that people should not be wasting water, this is a very one sided view of this issue. The people who tend to consume more water in suburbia also tend to be the people who pay more for water which subsidises those that cannot afford water.

  • Wayne.peinke says:

    This study seems a little one-sided and fails to take into account that the same 15% that use 51% of the city’s water also pay for more than 80% of the city’s water…

  • Peter Wanliss says:

    Any idea of how much the ‘elite’ (what a strange term to use here) and ‘upper middle class’ contribute to the income of the City, and how much of this is spent on services to the poor and indigent? Is this a serious article or an advertorial? And is wealth at all related to class? Don’t you get low-class people who amass large fortunes and likewise, are there not poor people who deport themselves with class? Someone’s slip is showing.

  • jcdville stormers says:

    How many people moved to western cape /cape Town in the last 10 years

  • Beyond Fedup says:

    Just another wayward moron who puts pen to paper with a completely one-sided view instead of balancing her article with reality. Whilst water is a precious commodity and should be preserved as much as possible, it is the so-called elite who pay dearly for it and in so doing, provide it free and in abundance for those who can’t pay and won’t pay even if they could. It would also be in order, as a commentator pointed out, to look at the whole budget that the CT Council spends on the non-elite in order to improve their lies and services. It is the way of the world- those who can pay and do, subsidise those who can’t and won’t. Wake up Natalia!

  • Clinton Herring says:

    Wow these comments really should be filed under “if the shoe fits”

    15% of households consume 51% of water. It’s all in that number.

  • Cape Doctor says:

    In order to be both valid and credible, research needs to be based on data collected and analyzed without bias or agenda. To quote: “Dr Elisa Savelli chose to focus on socioeconomic disparities as the comparison point for this paper after seeing how the Day Zero drought drastically affected poorer populations while the wealthier strata were largely unaffected.” I suspect a partisan approach from the outset, and yet another thinly-disguised attempt to vilify those who pay or their services. Perhaps time for DM to employ a scientific editor who can sort the dogma from the fact before going to print.

  • David Walker says:

    What a ridiculous and ill-informed article. During the great drought of 2017, water was restricted to all residents of Cape Town, even if you could afford the very punitive tariffs. And low-flow meters were installed on the properties of repeat offenders. All the middle class people I know were using buckets in the shower, installing grey water systems etc etc. Not to mention that water pricing in Cape Town is on sliding scale, the more you use, the greater is the charge per litre. So the wealthy consumers massively subsidize the poorer consumers.

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

A South African Hero: You

There’s a 99.7% chance that this isn’t for you. Only 0.3% of our readers have responded to this call for action.

Those 0.3% of our readers are our hidden heroes, who are fuelling our work and impacting the lives of every South African in doing so. They’re the people who contribute to keep Daily Maverick free for all, including you.

The equation is quite simple: the more members we have, the more reporting and investigations we can do, and the greater the impact on the country.

Be part of that 0.3%. Be a Maverick. Be a Maverick Insider.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options

MavericKids vol 3

How can a child learn to read if they don't have a book?

81% of South African children aged 10 can't read for meaning. You can help by pre-ordering a copy of MavericKids.

For every copy sold we will donate a copy to Gift of The Givers for children in need of reading support.