Questioning the Constructed Intangibilities of Water Resources within the Modern Household

water scarcity decentralized water management household water security


November 10, 2023


The built environment defines how societies shape relationships within hydrological systems to ensure water security within natural and constructed limitations. Globally, due to geographic, climatic, and anthropogenic reasons, the experience of water scarcity is highly unequal. Within water-secure households, water is often taken for granted as a resource; this is in stark contrast to over a quarter of the world, including at least two million American citizens, for whom water insecurity intersects with the risk of losing residential tenure and heightened disease burden (Urban Waters Learning Network, n.d.; Fedinick et al. 2019).

In this paper, I show how centralized water governance models typically result in highly varied levels of household water security. Globally, public and private water authorities have adopted an economic model of scarcity in water management. Governments and service providers attempt to forestall unsustainable environmental degradation, costly energy intensity, and the mismanagement crippling large-scale infrastructural systems with the revenue they derive from treating water as an economic good. However, these models do not guarantee water access, safety, or affordability and have resulted in the unequal distribution of water scarcity between households.

The issues with centralized water management and the burden on communities are discussed through a case study of the ‘Day Zero’ drought in Cape Town, South Africa, which took place from 2015-2018. I discuss water access in two households before and during this three-year drought and emphasize how the built environment factors into consumption patterns, water tariffing, and the regulation of water access.

In contrast, I argue that decentralized and on-site water management could mediate regional and socio-economic disparities through increasing local water access. I foreground urban disparities in local water access to advocate for the decentralization of water infrastructure and an increase in access to and support for household water and energy security. Residential-to-neighborhood structures for on-site water management could provide more equitable resource negotiation within the built environment, increasing access and widespread security as locally attuned hybrid-decentralized systems.

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