Water’s value in the fight against climate change

Q&A with Nicci Russell, Managing Director, Waterwise

Water is often thought of as secondary to energy when it comes to the climate emergency, says Nicci Russell, Managing Director of non-profit, non-governmental organisation Waterwise, which promotes water efficiency. But now, she says, it’s time for water issues to come to the fore and be actively linked to our efforts to combat and adapt to climate change.

What motivates people to save water more: saving money or doing something for the environment?

I believe doing something good for the environment is more powerful. The climate emergency and linking that to water efficiency is an important theme. And before the pandemic it was debated absolutely everywhere – from dinner parties to conferences. What Waterwise is trying to do is to make sure that water efficiency gets a better seat at the table in those conversations, because it is really important to climate change adaptation and mitigation.

That said, our research and the water companies’ research show that different things motivate different people, so it's important to target the messaging on the individual level – whether people care about money or the environment or something else.

But the climate emergency is absolutely key. Internationally, crises have helped engage people – for example in Cape Town a couple of years ago when they were approaching ‘day zero’. So we're really keen to bring forward behavioural change and the awareness of the value of water before we get to a crisis point. There's a big challenge around how people value water at the moment.
Nicci Russell Managing Director, Waterwise

In our survey of 1,000 UK residents, 57% agree that people should be incentivised to use water outside periods of peak consumption. How beneficial do you think that could be to water conservation efforts? 

Customers’ willingness to manage consumption during peak times is really helpful. Look at recent freeze-thaw and heatwave incidents, in 2018 alone: cold weather causes supply interruptions, and so do massive heatwaves. Sometimes, the problem isn’t that water companies don't have enough water stored – it’s that they can't get it through the pipes quickly enough to cater to the high consumption in towns and cities. 

It's really positive if customers acknowledge the need for management around peaks. There are also daily peaks to consider, and all sorts of technology that people can use to spread out water use – for example, setting the washing machine to start up in the middle of the night – without the need for behavioural change, which is often the harder part.

What can people do to reduce water consumption in their homes?

We see a reduction of up to 15–17% in water use after meters are installed. That’s because knowledge is power. Once you have the information, your water company or community organisations can say, ‘You're not doing as well as your neighbours,’ or ‘Look: you've used more than you did last year. Do you have a leak?’ Meters can open up a whole world of information, which can then be linked to behaviour. For me, the big missed opportunity was the failure to link smart electricity meters and water meters. We're all customers of energy and water. 

Rainwater recycling and grey water recycling systems have also really gained traction.

Recent research has shown that 80% of people are really interested in having these for toilet flushing in their homes, whereas traditional thinking has been that customers aren't interested in water recycling. As the technologies improve, it's obviously easier to integrate them into mainstream use.

You say that knowledge is power, but what about the water companies? Do you see further opportunities for them to gather and exploit data?

The big challenge – and not just for us, but for everybody – is business water use. Since we moved to the retail market, nobody has had any idea what water is being used where. That's a bit of an exaggeration, but we don't know the full picture – which is problematic when you're trying to forecast and manage demand, and how much supply you might need to build or source. 

So we seriously need data on business water use, and that's one of the things that we're working on developing with the sector. Too many businesses aren't realising the connections between the service they pay for, how they could reduce their bills, what it means to the environment and what water efficiency means for their own resilience as businesses. Many have big carbon and energy efficiency programmes, and they just don't really bother with their water.

Our research shows that 80% of UK residents feel threatened by the impact of pollution on their water supply. Do you think that is a justified concern?

Companies are supposed to be improving the environment. That's actually built into the regulatory framework. But time and again, companies forget in their strategic documents and their customer research that they have actually committed to improving the environment and not just not making it worse. 

There has been a huge amount of improvement across the sector in recent years on pollution, but there are still really big incidents as well as lots of smaller ones. 
Companies aren’t all aiming for zero incidents and have rewards and penalties attached to the number of incidents. Some customers say water companies should really be aiming for zero incidents. So I definitely think that is not an imaginary thing in people's minds.

Do you think that is why people tend to prefer bottled water to drinking tap water?

All these shiny, expensive bottled-water brands basically often contain tap water. And people go for that, because the brands are aspirational. But the water [utility] company brands are less powerful for people, and they traditionally haven't engaged as well with their customers, and are only starting to do so now. Our drinking water quality is some of the best in the world and meets something like 99.9% of the strict EU and UK standards. It’s incredibly clean. It's just that people don't know about it. 

What other kinds of messages should water companies engage with?

There are quite a lot of messages they need to share. They need people not to waste water and not to flush unflushables down the toilet. Water companies also want to tell customers in local campaigns about what they're doing to protect the environment. 

We need water companies to communicate all of this to their customers. Water companies are now getting better at this and are moving away from telling customers what to do and moving towards co-creation. They say ‘okay customers, tell us what you're interested in, your motivations and habits beyond water, and then we'll hook our strategy in with that’.
Nicci Russell Managing Director, Waterwise

We are really keen for all the water companies to write up all of their projects and their pilot schemes in relation to customers’ water efficiency, so we can learn from each other's mistakes.

Are you happy with the National Framework’s target for 2050 of 110 litres of daily average use per person? Or would you have liked to see it go further? 
Waterwise’s Head of Strategy and Policy Nathan Richardson is part of the group that drafted it, and it’s more ambitious than what we’ve had in the past. In terms of the figure, it's helpful to have a planning assumption. It's being built into all of the regulatory demands, which is really positive. We are going to need a regulatory framework that is sympathetic to upfront investment in water efficiency, and we also need a policy framework that includes things like a water-efficiency label.

We're really positive about the National Framework, and we think it will drive a lot of ambition and change. But we're the campaigning organisation for water efficiency specifically, and we’re challenging everybody in the sector – government regulators and water companies – to think through what they need to have in place to achieve these targets, and how and when they could for example halve consumption.

Successive water ministers – probably the past 10 water ministers of any political persuasion – and the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, completely get what needs to be done; the problem is getting a seat for water issues at the tables in the Treasury and Number 10 where the big decisions are made.

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