'The only thing that needs to be green is your lawn.'
Should we care about water conservation all the year round, or only when there's a drought? Is it really in the interests of water companies for us to buy less water?
The recent droughts and floods in England have been presented by some in the media as having some kind of prophetic significance. Whether you see this weather as yet more irrefutable evidence of climate change, or an old-fashioned divine judgement on the nation's declining morals, depends on which newspapers you read.
Thankfully for some, the once in 30 year drought was partly offset by the mother of all April showers, and any day now we will be able to turn our hosepipes back on, and we certainly don€™t have to worry about standpipes, at least until next year.
What does this mean for the water companies? Regardless of the PR claims, privatised water companies make vast profits mostly by selling vast quantities of water and by ensuring it is neatly taken away when we have finished using it. During the drought they were telling us water is a precious resource not to be wasted on washing cars and watering golf courses. Now that the heavens have opened the media has gone very quiet and for most thirsty customers it€™s back to businesses as usual and the only thing that needs to be green is your front lawn.
As the taps turn on again, the money begins to flow for the shareholders of water companies. The perversity of the privatised water industry suggests changes in the weather brings ebb and flow of share-holder fortunes. When it is raining, the scientists relax and the company directors turn back to their pension plans.
Is it not time to turn the whole industry upside down? Currently there is a financial incentive for water companies to sell more water but we need a system which rewards companies who seriously try to reduce consumption. Installing metering will be an essential part of this strategy as increased cost does encourage some customers to reduce consumption. Transferring more of the burden of responsibility onto the supplier would be helpful, not just to mitigate drought but also to reduce the environmental costs of pumping, piping and treating water, which Water UK says represents 3% of UK energy use and 5 million tonnes of CO2. As a consultant who earns a crust by assisting organisations in reducing water costs I have a professional and vested interest in persuading water suppliers to up their game in terms of helping customers reduce consumption, but surely reducing water consumption is in everyone€™s interest with the possible exception of the water suppliers.
One potential solution is to introduce rationing. Obviously we shouldn€™t call it rationing because such inflammatory language would create a feeding frenzy for the tabloid press. However, some kind of carrot and stick mechanism for water companies, based on personal or household quotas, might offset the current financial incentive to sell as much of the available water as possible. A quota system that affected individual households would be politically unacceptable and very difficult to administer fairly because families and family homes come in many different shapes and sizes. However, water companies ought to be able to say how much water is delivered to metered domestic properties annually and therefore must be able to declare a baseline average per household which they could then start to reduce year on year. Stiff financial penalties could be imposed on those companies that failed to meet targets. After all, water companies face leakage targets so why not wastage targets?
This seems a much better way to incentivise water management. Now it only remains to negotiate the obvious obstacles of inertia in government and industry.Ashley Baxter