Learning to value clean water

Sensemaking / Learning to value clean water

When the sky is heavy with rain and water flows freely from the tap, it can be easy to forget the costs of treatment and delivery. Katherine Rowland finds out how suppliers are encouraging consumers to value this precious resource.

29 Oct 2012

When the sky is heavy with rain and water flows freely from the tap, it can be easy to forget the costs of treatment and delivery. Katherine Rowland finds out how suppliers are encouraging consumers to value this precious resource.

Last spring when the utility Thames Water launched a campaign to raise awareness of southeast England's growing water stress, photographers were quick to snap up pictures of buses, emblazoned with 'We are in drought', splashing umbrella-toting passers-by. The irony in these images captures a widespread conundrum. Despite the impression of water plenty, the need for conservation and efficiency is greater than ever, as rising demand and climate variability place increasing strain on groundwater reserves. In the UK and around the world, suppliers are trying to bolster customers' understanding of local water resources with campaigns to make it plain that – while many consider water a human right – its treatment and delivery must be paid for.

"Water is a hidden service", says Michael Deane, Executive Director of the US National Association of Water Companies. "People see rainfall, and ask, why should I pay for water? They don't realise what they're paying for is pumping, pipes and infrastructure, and that capital is necessary for preserving future resources."

Despite the low-level of public knowledge, Deane maintains that communicating the environmental and public health importance of clean water increases customers' willingness to use resources more efficiently and pay higher rates.

Thames Water is doing just that. In partnership with WWF-UK, the local council and the not-for-profit efficiency consultants Waterwise, the utility is taking steps to reduce Swindon's water use – which, at 164 litres per person per day, is well above the UK Government's target of 130 litres. The project, which won the Environment Agency Chairman's Award at the 2012 UK Water Efficiency Awards, includes distributing free home water-saving devices, as well as educational outreach to establish explicit connections between the tap and the region's valued rivers. It has reduced Swindon's overall water use by 560,000 litres per day.

A drought campaign by Thames Water delivered encouraging results. In its first week, over 20,000 people visited its 'Waterwisely' website – 15 times more than usual – and during May's hot spell its customers' water use went down by 100 million litres. Crucially, independent research revealed that, thanks to the campaign, just under 90% of customers understood that there was a water shortage despite record spring rainfall, and 72% understood why. More crucially, 89% said they would either continue to use as little water as possible or would continue to use less than they did before the drought.

Anglian Water's area of operations includes some of the driest parts of England. It also has one of the country's fastest growing populations, so it is particularly important for businesses operating in the region to save water. Bob Wilson, Director, Anglian Water Business explains: "We urge our business customers to develop a water strategy which takes into account all the financial and environmental costs of using water, including associated energy use and carbon emissions." They are offered a range of services, including assistance in finding and fixing leaks. Through its Love Every Drop campaign, the utility also helps customers to better understand the value of water. Part of that is finding ways to reduce water waste, with the goal of reducing daily, domestic use by 20 litres per person. Domestic customers are encouraged to install meters and are offered free water-saving devices. As Andy Brown, Anglian's Head of Sustainability, notes: "The impression of wet weather makes people assume they don't need to be careful with water use, but once they understand the facts – like how much water is used for a shower or washing their car – they become much more responsive."

For the same reasons, plentiful rainfall in the US Pacific Northwest could hamper efforts to improve water efficiency. However, current consumption rates in Washington State are now as low as they were in 1957, thanks to one of the country's most effective consumer conservation programmes. The Saving Water Partnership (SWP) for Seattle has reduced overall water usage by a cumulative total of 9.56 million gallons per day from 2000 to 2010, despite regional population and economic growth.

"The success of our projects is that we don't just give consumers tips on how to save water: we provide them with a 'why' message", says Al Dietemann, who leads SWP. The agency installs free water-saving hardware, and offers educational messages via print, radio and television, in English and the languages of the large East African and First Nations populations. It also engages local leaders to spread conservation values. "Social marketing is much more effective than having utilities preach change to customers," adds Dietemann. "We create tailored messages that relate to local cultures and activities in ways that people can understand."

One of the most effective campaigns tied domestic water use to the local watershed, around which much of the area's recreational and industrial activities revolve. In particular, the watershed is home to one of the largest wild salmon runs in the US, and so the agency used imagery to help customers see how water use could affect the health of the river and its stocks.

Seattle authorities are hardly alone in making appeals to local values. In Texas, among other states in the US South, the federally-sponsored 40 Gallon Challenge prompts citizens to "take the pledge to conserve water" for their county and state. In the Middle East, the Jordanian Government and the Palestinian Hydrology Group have framed consumer water saving initiatives in relation to religious emphases on conservation.

Scarcity is a global problem, but water use and ethics vary widely by region

The European Commission's Generation Awake campaign caters to a younger, more ecologically savvy cohort, urging citizens to address over-consumption with the aid of 3D animation, videos and social media. This project aims to help consumers understand how water resources are not bound by national borders, and to encourage a pan-European ethos of conservation. While scarcity is a global problem, water use and consumer ethics vary widely by region. Campaigns work best when they target local concerns, says Deane. "People don't want to pay for abstract issues like climate change in their water bill – it's hard enough to get people to pay for ageing pipes. But they will pay and conserve when they understand how water issues affect their own communities."

For Andrew Tucker of the UK's Energy Saving Trust, it's also important to help the people see the connections between water use and energy efficiency. Energy saving, he says, has steadily become part of mainstream culture, and consumers recognise that simple steps, like switching off lights, will be rewarded through lower bills. Water, by contrast, is relatively cheap when compared to other services, and rarely metered (in the UK). Although prices have been steadily increasing, efficiency measures don't necessarily result in significant cost savings on the water bill.

The Trust's Water Energy Calculator, which has been adopted by several of the nation's utilities, helps consumers see how energy and water usage go hand in hand. It processes personal variables, such as home and family size, geographic location, and whether the household has a garden and swimming pool, to identify where waste is occurring. It then generates tailored tips for improved efficiency. "None of it is rocket science", says Tucker. "There are clear measures you can take to reduce use and improve efficiency. The challenge is the broad shift in mindset that makes these actions standard practice."

Katherine Rowland is a journalist specialising in health and environment. She is based in New York.

Photos: Ingram Publishing/thinkstock / istockphoto/thinkstock

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