Who Really Pays the Bills?: Off-grid Living and Resource Scarcity Around the Globe

By Ronnie Miller & Rachel Major

What does it mean to live off-grid?

It could mean you are self-sustaining, produce your own power and clean your own water, collect your own food. There has been a boom in off-grid living in recent years, where those ranging from doctors to parents to the tech elite are opting to disconnect.

The privilege of leaving a less than ideal grid is generally reserved for those that have at least $50,000 to drop and have a decently stable grid to leave in the first place.


Not everyone who lives off the grid does so by choice. Too often, low-income individuals are forced to wait on the government for access to healthy resources -- and the government often does not come through.


These rural and underdeveloped areas are frequently independent of any kind of resource grid. The lack of resource grid - and often the poverty that accompanies it - permeates developed and developing nations alike. In the US, the nation with the world’s largest GDP, 20% of the population doesn’t have access to clean water and nearly half of the citizens live in or near poverty.


However, the fact remains that 87% of the world’s energy poor live in rural developing areas. The IEA has calculated that by 2030, 80% of the world’s off-grid population will be in sub-Saharan Africa. And today, 80% of the world’s population is living in poverty, most of which is concentrated in Africa. For many, the lack of stable resources hinders these communities from reaching their true economic and societal potential.


Water plays a key role. As a keystone societal resource, the lack of water is the leading cause of global poverty. Without it, people in impoverished lands can’t focus on much else -- they can’t stay healthy, stay in school, find work, or develop their economy.


And people fight violently for it. The first recorded water conflict dates as far back as 2500 BC and are just a prevalent today - the Syrian war started over a water conflict, for example. Today, in Yemen over 4,000 people die annually because of water-related conflicts. As our most required sustenance becomes more and more scarce, their fierce battles will only expand and worsen.


It is our mismanagement of this precious resource that causes scarcity and resulting poverty. Because of this, water creates a distinct divide between the rich and the poor.


Cape Town, Africa has been a prime example of this.  Earlier this year, citizens were counting down the hours until “Day Zero” and households were limited to only 50 liters of water a day. Exceptionally high water tariffs were proposed that doubled the cost for drinking water and were subsequently protested by citizens.


The unrest still presents in Cape Town over water has not subsided. Scientists warn that this pattern could become the new normal. All the while the gap between the rich and poor continues to widen. The rich of Cape Town can afford lavish solutions. But the poor must depend on governmental support -- from a government much more inclined to provide solutions to those who can pay.


Here is the true battle. We are faced with the consequences that decades of drastic water and power mismanagement has caused, but we’re not ready to stand down yet.


Cape Town received some relief from an unlikely source -- farmers. A farming province created their own infrastructure to battle extending drought. Throughout the province, water usage has been reduced by 80%, and up to 50% of this was cut back for reserve. This led them to have an extremely unexpected surplus of water. Thus, they generously donated 10 million liters of water to Cape Town and have proven farmers - and individual action - to be key allies in the fight against water scarcity.


While frustrating, water’s link to poverty being centered around mismanagement is also encouraging. There is enough water in the world for everyone. We can fix this. And one of the first things that should happen is decentralizing water in a way that doesn’t further the divide between the rich and the poor. To give a lifeline to the future of humanity in both the developing and the developed world.


Though we hope to emerge victorious, the outcome is yet to be determined. We still do not know if as a society we can surmount this. But in this war, we believe in the vast armies of the passionate and dedicated, willing to face the deepest truths of reality and take action. It is now up to us to determine whether we will win or lose.