Mike and Nikki discuss some of the greatest threats to the UK water and wastewater system and the ideas and innovations we can draw on to start to encourage behaviour change.
What are the greatest threats to the UK’s water and wastewater system?
Nikki: Climate change is our greatest challenge: changing weather and patterns of rainfall. As our results show - UK consumers are of course starting to be aware of this in the context of floods but are perhaps less so when it comes to drought.
Projections show that, at certain times of the year, parts of the country may receive more rainfall. But the system doesn’t have the flexibility needed to accommodate these changes. When you consider that most of our infrastructure assets need to last more than 100 years, there’s a lot to do.
Mike: In my mind the answer to many of these problems is storage. We need more storage in the right place, whether to reduce flooding or make sure that water supplies are adequate during drought. Our system is very efficient now, but the paradigm is changing and we're going to need to invest. Storage could also help the water sector start to address the net zero challenge. Having community level storage, for example, could help to reduce the amount of water we need to move around – which is very energy intensive.
On the drainage and wastewater side the DWMP process seems to be indicating that there are an awful lot of places which are very, very close to their limit in flow capacity and that another 50 houses or increasingly intense rainfall will cause them to flood. So, there's going to be a need for investment in things to make the sewers more effective, provide short-term storage - like sustainable drainage, or the Thames Tideway.
What can we do about the perception that tap water isn’t up to scratch?
Mike: It’s very interesting to see that people don’t trust the quality of their tap water. Testing information is widely available – on Discover Water for example – and our water is almost universally of exceedingly high quality. Despite all the work that is done, the water companies need to spend more time and effort, or rethink how they are promoting messages about water quality.
Nikki: I wonder if the issue is at least partly related to price and branding. Cheap tap water is seen as lower quality than expensive bottled water because of the perception that the more you pay for something, the better it is.
How can we motivate behaviour change?
Nikki: At the moment price isn’t a strong motivator. In energy for example, bills are higher: people are used to being metered, so we are generally more conscious about what we use. It’s not the same with water, there isn’t the same level of concern around how much we use and how much it costs – because our supply has always been so reliable and our costs so low. We must nudge people into thinking it’s our responsibility.
It’s interesting that people seem to be as motivated by environmental concerns as by price, so there may be a connection we could make in people’s minds between using less water and the drive to use less carbon (and so contribute to the battle against climate change).
How can water companies work with their customers to help them moderate consumption?
Nikki: In Newmarket, Anglian Water has been testing a new approach to try and reduce water use. Essentially, they're using the town as a testbed for ideas to make the system smarter – drones that spot water leaks and smart meters, for example. They also created a shopfront for the initiative – which helped engage residents in the issue.
Mike: Also in East Anglia, we worked with Essex and Suffolk Water on their flagship ‘Every Drop Counts’ project. Customers are given a free audit of their house, then provided with up to £130 of free water saving products. These products include toilet dual flush conversion devices, tap aerators to reduce outlet flow rates, a bath buoy to reduce the amount of water required to fill a tub and water butts for the capture and storage of rainwater. Participating customers are each saving on average 24.3 litres per day.
Read more from our Value of Water researchContact Mike and Nikki
What challenges need to be overcome to drive innovation and new approaches?
Mike: It’s been said many times, but our financing and regulatory model needs to change. The challenge is that step changes in efficiency are effectively penalised by reduced future investment, which inspires incrementalism. There's been a huge amount of innovation, but all small.
Ofwat's Innovation Fund could be a step forward – successful ideas will be co-funded and then can be used by everybody. In fact, they may even be expected to use it. It’s inevitable that there will be some failures, which will be mitigated by the fact the fund will be carrying some of that risk.
Nikki: Companies are looking for creative ways around this to spend money. Anglian for example, have had success with five-year Green Bonds. It's been a successful way to finance things that you couldn't do otherwise through the existing framework.