Can we nudge consumers to reduce water consumption?

In a hotter climate, with drier summers, we are likely to experience more frequent droughts. How can the water sector plan and adapt? WSP's Technical Lead in Water, Paul Swift explains...

The UK water industry regulator, Ofwat, published it first climate change policy document in 2008, setting out policies to deal with water demand and supply.  Since then, customer water demand has fallen from 155 litres to 143 litres, per person, per day.  However, it needs to reduce even further to meet future water supply challenges. The more recent National Framework for Water Resources set out a target of 110 litres, per person, per day, by 2050.

This ambitious target will require significant action from water companies on their commitments to reduce reducing leakage and ensure a secure water supply.  But, as CIWEM’s Household Water Efficiency Briefing Note sets out, individual customers must also make changes.  The challenge facing the industry is customer behaviour.

Our recent Value of Water research surveyed the views of the public around their attitudes and understanding of water. We found:

  • Nearly half of customers are worried about the future of the UK water supply - the public already recognise this challenge
  • Customers do not perceive drought to be a significant issue
  • Residents are more likely to take bigger measures to reduce water usage during time of scarcity
  • Residents with water meters are more motivated to reduce their water demand

What role could nudge theory play?

Nudge theory proposes positive reinforcement and indirect suggestions as ways to influence the behaviour and decision making of groups or individuals. Nudging contrasts with other ways to achieve compliance, such as education, legislation or enforcement. A ‘nudge’ is presenting a choice in a way that alters people's behaviour without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives.

It is now widely adopted by governments, international organisations and businesses to promote and encourage change - to supplement the more rigid ‘command and control’ style regulation. An example of this approach is the ban on smoking in public places in the UK.

We don’t have to look far to find examples of nudge theory in practice in the UK. The Government has its very own Behavioural Insights Team; often referred to as the ‘Nudge Unit’.

An example of careful design of choices is the 10p charge for plastic bags in shops. A small nudge which has led to a dramatic reduction in single use plastic bags. 

Another nudge technique is feedback; the provision of information which then makes the public consider their own behaviours; a good example is addition of health warnings on cigarette packaging.

Applying nudge to the water sector

Could water companies use nudge feedback techniques  an information campaign to inform customers about the real risk of future droughts?  This approach could nudge customers to reduce their water demand, in a similar way health messaging on cigarette packaging helped changed behaviour.

What about using an opt out policy for water meters rather than an opt in one? If smart meters seem to result in a different attitude to water consumption, this could be another way to help drive change. This technique was been used successfully when the 2010 pension reforms meant employers auto-enrolled employees in plans; whilst allowing employees to opt out if they wished to.  The opt out rate became less than 10%.

As part of our research, we learned that Northumbrian Water has recently adopted nudge techniques to reduce the sewer flooding from blockages caused by wet wipes. They gave customers free bins for their bathrooms to nudge them to change their habits. They also provided positive feedback on the impacts of their behaviour.

Tamzin card - Northumbrian water - VoW

The other benefit? Nudge theory techniques are usually very cost efficient, but they can yield significant benefits. 

Do we need to be firmer with our messages?

Understandably, water suppliers are reluctant to alarm customers but, if we don’t make change, there are risks of restrictions to water supply. The south east of England is an example of a region where customer behaviour has already started to shift in response to water supply challenges.

“Security of supply” needs to be understood as meaning security of supply for essential uses, not for all uses at all times. CIWEM recommends more work from water suppliers, regulators and the Government to help to make people aware of the risk of drought.

If we are to achieve our ambitious per capita consumption targets, is it about time water companies took nudge theory further?