With the population growing, an increasing need for resilience and pressure on the industry to keep bills low, these factors point to one conclusion: each of us needs to use less water.
The onus to help us save water is placed on the water companies. Ofwat, the water industry regulator, has set water companies a target to make year-on-year water efficiency savings of one litre per property per day. How can they do it? Simple technology and advice can help customers find easy ways to cut their consumption and save money, although the long-term key is to transform everyone’s attitude to water.
Every Drop Counts
For one company – Northumbrian Water Limited (NWL) – the Ofwat target equates to a saving of nearly 730 million litres per year. That’s the equivalent of one-and-a-half supertankers full of water. Achieving and maintaining savings on this scale takes massive commitment.
Over the past decade, WSP has partnered NWL to deliver its award-winning Every Drop Counts initiative across its southern region. This provides domestic customers with technology, and advice to significantly reduce both their water consumption and utility bills. (Even if, like around 50% of UK households, you don’t have a water meter, reducing hot water consumption can still cut your energy bill.) With Every Drop Counts, customers book a visit from a qualified plumber who assesses their consumption, installs water-saving products such as low-flow fittings, repairs leaky taps and toilets and offers tips on how they can save more water and energy – such as only boiling as much water in the kettle as they need.
The savings add up, as our experience during 2018 – England’s hottest summer on record – showed. Essex received an average of just 1.7mm of rainfall during June. Nationally, water suppliers raised concerns that the hot spell could increase water usage by more than 50% as people cooled off and watered their plants. Despite this, the Every Drop Counts campaign we delivered with Essex & Suffolk Water, a subsidiary of NWL), engaged 17,031 customers, helping participating households save an average of 39.8 litres per property per day in 2018. That’s double the total saving it achieved in 2016 and the equivalent of around 83 Olympic swimming pools of water per year.
So, it can be done – and the approach we’ve employed in Every Drop Counts certainly works. But we, and our client NWL, know that to address future challenges, the water industry needs to take things even further - including collaborating with other utility suppliers. It takes energy to supply water to your house, and to heat the water for your shower, so it requires a joined-up approach.
Over the coming years, you can expect to see the water and energy industries working more closely to provide more efficient, affordable and environmentally-friendly services. Gradually, a higher percentage of homes will have water- and energy-efficient fittings. And looking further into the future, this could extend to measures like installing a mini-wastewater recycling facility in your house that can provide water for jobs like washing the car, and also recover waste heat from your shower and use it to heat your home.
Beyond this, the focus will shift more towards the customer, encouraging them to appreciate water as a valuable commodity and using behaviour-change to help them understand and manage their consumption. Together with Essex & Suffolk Water, we’ve already worked closely with the universities of Chicago (US), Oxford (UK) and Sheffield (UK) to test the effects that behavioural economics theories have on improving customer participation ¬– how people can be incentivised to take part in initiatives, for example.
Small changes in behaviour can have a big impact when they’re amplified across millions of customers. Widespread reduction in water use will see customers repaid with corresponding reductions in their utility bills – an important factor for vulnerable or less affluent people in particular – but there will be wider economic and environmental benefits too. With reduced consumption, there will be less need for larger reservoirs, new treatment works, pumping stations or larger supply pipes. This keeps the environmental and economic cost of supplying these vital daily services down for everyone.
When it comes to the future of the UK water industry, less really is more.
Hamish Chalmers: Divisional Manager, Water Consulting – WSP
Jon Ross: Project Manager, Water – WSP