Simon Cocks is Independent Chair of Water Resources in the South East (WRSE), which brings together the six companies in the South East of England that between them supply water to 40% of the UK population. He says that customer engagement is key to making the country’s water infrastructure more resilient to climate change
Is the UK’s water and wastewater infrastructure prepared for extreme weather and climate change?
Our water infrastructure assets are getting older, and the environment they have to cope with is getting riskier because of extreme weather events – both flood and drought. Climate change is clearly affecting our weather patterns, and this will require us to take action to ensure continuously available resources for future generations.
The UK has fantastic infrastructure in both water and wastewater, and more generally, but of course a lot of it has been around for a very long time. So we need to adapt and create new infrastructure to meet future challenges.
We've had an economic regulatory framework covering the key infrastructure that is required for society to function effectively for anywhere between 25 and 40 years now. This framework has rightly been about making the sector more efficient and trying to get better cost, price and service discovery. But we need to supplement this approach for the future.
None of the vital networks – water, energy, road and rail – were built on an economically modelled basis; they were built on a visionary and strategic basis for the good of society and to meet pressing social need. Most of this work was done by the Victorians and focused on the social value and the priority, not unit cost. Clearly for the future we cannot spend customers’ money like the Victorians did; we must be accountable. But perhaps there is a better balance of understanding to be attained between absolute cost and value?
With all of this in mind, in the South East, WRSE aims to increase interconnectivity between the water companies and improve water storage, either locally or regionally, so that we're ready to meet future challenges. We need to ensure that we've got water where it's needed and when it's needed – or at least that we have a way of getting it there, as climate change starts to bite in an already-dry region that’s experiencing population growth.
Then there’s the issue of flooding. We’ve seen previously unimaginable scenes in the media over the past few years. So we’re looking at how to combine flood management schemes with water resource schemes. Are there ways of solving both sides of that equation through single solutions?
Whose responsibility is it to help the water companies become more resilient to these climate-change-related challenges?
We need to ensure that customers’ bills are at a level that supports development of effective and reliable infrastructure in a changing world, so that when there’s a flood or drought we can still make clean drinking water available and continue to take wastewater away.
It's important that we work collaboratively and effectively with our quality and economic regulators to achieve these goals. Collectively, we need to embark on a transformational journey, further embracing innovation and new technology. Sometimes that’s about having the courage and support to try new things now – then making sure that national policies rapidly follow to ensure consistent and effective implementation.
How do the UK’s water and wastewater management systems compare internationally?
California is really interesting in this context. In California, water availability and water management are seen as shared responsibilities by everyone from state government to customer – there’s a real sense that everyone’s in it together. Australia is similar: awareness levels are very high. Whereas in the UK the responsibilities are not always crystal clear or seen as shared. In our country, does responsibility lie with the government, the water companies, customers or others? There’s definitely scope for more effective collaboration, in my view.
While our innovative ideas and policies in the UK are extremely strong compared with most countries, we need to get much better at moving more quickly and getting things done – creating capacity and capability for when it’s needed, not risk having to react to a shortfall or worse after a failure event. I believe there are other countries that deliver against their policies more effectively than we do and anticipate need more effectively. It goes back to the courage point – they are willing to collaborate to do pilots and are then quicker to develop their ideas into real assets and services.
How do you think the public perceives the value of water – and the value of the water industry?
In recent times, there has been a somewhat unbalanced narrative about the water industry and the work it does, in my view.
There’s a nagging criticism levelled at the industry that it’s not very innovative and is not seeking out new technology, which is simply untrue. The narrative about the water industry has been largely negative about all kinds of things – from leakage, to company ownership, to use of natural resources. I really don’t think this paints a balanced or fair picture, and if this situation persists, I believe it will hinder collaborative working and the ability to create a shared sense of how to best address future challenges.
The reality of the water industry is that it provides clean, safe drinking water to a 99.5% quality standard, and delivers that service to customers with an impressive 80% level of customer satisfaction.
This type of service is something to be proud of, but of course from this great heritage there needs to be a new, forward-looking narrative: getting more customers and stakeholders engaged in the value of water. By value I don't mean price, but the value of water to society and the importance of water to society and the environment.
People don't necessarily feel very positive about the quality of their tap water. Why do you think that is? And how can they be encouraged to value it?
Our taste buds are very sensitive, aren't they? So we do notice when something tastes different, but a different taste doesn't mean the quality is lower.
People are also becoming increasingly aware of the volume of plastic bottles they use. The refill campaign has helped to establish a network of points where people can fill up their containers or obtain drinking water for free. This has been a great success and saves people money.
There have also been discussions about a national campaign to promote tap water. This would be welcome in my view. It would help awareness and inspire and motivate people, which would help us to reach environmental and sustainability goals.
What could the water and wastewater companies do to motivate the public to conserve water?
We need to continue to provide mechanisms and products that motivate people to want to use water more efficiently, and we need to constantly look for new opportunities to influence management of this precious resource.
The vast majority of people are paying around a pound a day for water; it’s available when they want it, and they can use as much of it as they want to.
I don't think there's any evidence that simply putting up prices drives different behaviour. For instance, we've seen petrol prices go up significantly in the past and it hasn't changed customer behaviour. And I don't believe water prices need to go up significantly to change customer behaviour. It’s about awareness, encouragement and engagement. In reality, to deliver our future water needs in a timely manner, the increased cost of sustaining supplies in the long run, even taking into account mitigating climate change and protection against drought and flooding, is very small.
We need to play our part to help people to think and behave differently, and do something practical for them. For instance, in new building projects or when retrofitting houses, homes could be made much more water-efficient without the customer noticing a thing. They wouldn’t have to change their habits or experience any sense of loss. Some basic examples of this are aerated taps and showers, and mechanisms that use less water when we flush the toilet.
Read more from our Value of Water researchContact the WSP team
Some of this is about creating a halo effect so people feel good about doing these things as well, so that they don't feel like something has been taken away. They should perceive that by doing something slightly differently, it improves everything for everyone. In this sense, behavioural science is really powerful and so fascinating, and I think that's an area the water industry can embrace further.
Finally, of course water meters help – especially smart meters. People are naturally conditioned to be comfortable measuring usage and consumption in pretty much every area of their lives – so why not water as well? This data can also be the start of a great conversation with customers about delivering a more water-efficient future.