Water companies are working hard to find new ways to track and reduce leakage – Thames Water alone recently found and fixed a leak that was wasting three million litres a day. But even if every leak in the networked were plugged, the companies still need to help us, their customers, to use less water if we are to maintain our lifestyles and a healthy environment at a manageable cost. We need to kickstart significant changes in consumer behaviour.

Every Drop Counts

In the short term, simple technology and advice can help customers find easy ways to cut their consumption and save money. This is what WSP has done over the past decade as we have partnered with Northumbrian Water Limited (NWL) to deliver its award-winning Every Drop Counts initiative. In 2018 through Every Drop Counts, NWL company Essex and Suffolk Water engaged 17,031 customers, helping participating metered properties each save an average of 39.8 litres per day.

Such initiatives can only go so far, though. Ultimately, you can offer all the water-saving products and visits from plumbers you like but if customers don’t really understand why these are needed or how to use them, we won’t see the full benefit. Reducing consumption over the long term requires awareness, information and behaviour change.

Targeted approaches

There won’t be a single way to get everyone on board. For example, primary school children could be engaged by programmes similar to Essex and Suffolk Water’s Supersplash Heroes. This uses fun, interactive theatre to teach children just how precious water is and how they can help conserve it by doing things like turning off the tap when brushing their teeth. For secondary school children, water infrastructure and the challenges it faces could become part of the formal syllabus.

As well as engaging children in schools, water companies will also need to target different customers in different ways – both those with a meter and those without. For someone with a meter who’s motivated by financial savings, providing the metrics to help them reduce water and energy bills (20% of which typically go on heating water) might be enough. But what about someone without a meter who can easily afford their bills and is not particularly bothered about reducing them? That will require a different approach.

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Would comparing water use with your neighbours encourage you to use less?

Rewarding behaviour

This is where behavioural psychology comes in. One approach could be to harness people’s desire to help their community – rewarding local areas that collectively conserve water. Companies such as Southern Water have already done this, rewarding local children with free swimming lessons, but there is scope for the approach to be used much more widely.

Giving people with meters more context about their usage data is a relatively simple step that could have a significant impact. Your water consumption figure may not mean much to you in isolation, or even compared to a national average. But what if your water bill (or, even better, an easy-to-access online portal) showed you how you compared to your neighbours in the same street? You wouldn’t want to use more than your ‘fair share’, would you? 

What’s more, you could earn points for saving water and choose how to ‘spend’ them – with the water company planting trees for you locally or creating blue infrastructure such as ponds at your local school. 

Time to act

Actions like these could help bring about substantial and lasting changes to the way people firstly think about and ultimately manage their water use. They could help water companies turn their visions for 2025 and 2050, which many have started to publish, into reality. Unfortunately, the mechanisms – and the will it will take to put new ideas on consumer behaviour change into action – are not yet in place.

What the sector needs next is a concerted effort from government and the water companies to focus on long-term behaviour change.


WSP Authors:
    Hamish Chalmers: Divisional Manager, Water Consulting 
    Jon Ross: Project Manager, Water

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