Engagement the key to promoting water efficiency

At a time of long-term growing pressure on water resources in some parts of the country, water industry stakeholders need to work together in practical ways to promote the efficient use of water in households. Tony Smith identifies some of the challenges and options.

Recent research commissioned by the Consumer Council for Water (CC Water) on behalf of Defra's Water Saving Group, provides some useful pointers on how to engage the public in taking positive action to change behaviour and help minimise wasteful use of water.

On a positive note the research found that consumers are concerned about the environment and are increasingly aware of the need to conserve water. However, they do not feel they are to blame for water shortages and should not be made to feel guilty for using water.

There was a strong feeling amongst respondents that we all have a responsibility to act. Everyone from the government, the water industry and its stakeholders to businesses and the wider public has a role to play.

Beyond this, there were two key issues identified by the research. Firstly, consumers strongly expressed the need for the utilities to demonstrate that they are fulfilling their side of the bargain to tackle leakage and secure future water supplies - no doubt brought to the fore by the extensive media coverage on this issue during last year's dry summer in parts of the UK.

Secondly, there is a need for the water industry as a whole to make it easier for consumers to do their bit and to demonstrate more clearly how we can all help reduce consumption.

The final finding of the survey was that consumers expressed an acceptance for restrictions such as hosepipe bans, but only if the water industry has done all it can and doesn't try and charge the consumer more to avoid restrictions if it hasn't. This presents a challenge to the industry not only to act to reduce leakage and improve efficiency but also to communicate about their actions.


Barriers to change
There are a number of barriers to making the changes required to ensure we use water more wisely. Foremost among these is the low level of awareness about how to minimise wasteful use of water and take positive action. There is also no single independent authoritative source of information on the subject, which has led to a lack of the provision of clear information and guidance.

The cost of water saving and water efficient devices is seen as prohibitive by many consumers. Around two-thirds of respondents suggested they were in favour of small grants towards appliances which used less water.

There is also a belief that it is difficult to see how individual action can impact on the bigger picture, another factor which could be addressed by better communication between the industry and its stakeholders.

Finally, the industry has a substantial job on its hands to improve its reputation among consumers, especially in relation to leakage rates. The survey found that people tended to have a fairly negative opinion of the industry, no doubt not helped by last summer's negative headlines.


Recommended actions
The research identified a number of practical actions to help address the issues raised. Firstly there is an urgent need for the water industry to demonstrate that it can and has delivered - and 'can help households deliver too'. This can best be achieved through a concerted communications campaign direct to consumers via trusted channels.

Secondly, there is clearly a need to show how individuals can make a difference in the context of the 'bigger picture'. This is a theme common to sectors outside the water industry forming part of a wider need for increased social awareness around resource efficiency and environmental protection.

More specific to the water industry is the need for practical help to make it easier for individual members of the public to take action, such as retro-fitting water efficient devices, and to demonstrate to them the positive impacts of water meters on improving household efficiency.

A schools education programme designed to influence tomorrow's homeowners will help to ensure greater awareness among the next generation which is one of the keys to a more sustainable future. The survey also recommended that pilot schemes are set up to improve efficiency in target towns, the response is monitored and evaluated as a way of informing future campaigns.

Finally, the research suggested there is a need for greater consideration of how regulation could be used as an incentive for people to support water efficiency and help to conserve water.


Conclusions
We all need to work together to help use water wisely and reduce waste. Each person in every household is able to do their bit to help, whether it is through the installation of a water meter, fitting water saving devices or turning the tap off while they brush their teeth and taking a shower instead of a bath.

What this research has demonstrated is that the water companies, for their part, need to support consumers in enabling them to help conserve water. Effective engagement with households is going to be critical for this to work. All of the recommendations we have put forward have a communications element designed to raise awareness and demonstrate positive actions and solutions to obtain acceptance and support.

It is clear that companies will need to work hard to give consumers practical help and clear unbiased information. Proving they are doing everything they can to minimise wastage will make it easier to encourage consumers to do the same.


Tony Smith is chief executive of the Consumer Council for Water - an organisation set up to provide a strong voice for water consumers in England and Wales. He presented a session on 'Engaging with the consumer: wiser usage but better service' on Tuesday 1 May at the International Water and Effluent (IWEX) event at the NEC in Birmingham.

The IWEX event is part of Sustainabilitylive! - the UK's largest forum for excellence and innovation for those working in the water, environment, energy and land sectors.
For more information on the Consumer Council for Water and its activities visit www.ccwater.org.uk



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