Thirst quenching

As consumers we take quality water for granted. Barrie Clarke, director of communication at Water UK, details why we should protect this most vital contributor to wellbeing

It is a common complaint that politicians, planners and even some people take water services for granted. (For some conversely, it is a badge of success, but that is another story.) One reason may be that we have traditionally taken for granted our most important role - protecting the nation's health. 'Impossible', you say. Anyone with a smidgen of social history knows that is why we exist. How could we take health for granted? Four years ago Water UK identified health as a key area for policy development. How come? The 1999 price review in England and Wales left an industry bruised. Its investment plans had been chopped and so had its workforce. Its stock market price was below asset value. Its ability to guarantee supply was still doubted, though the facts told a different story. Its reputation for quality was fragile (partly due to suggestive marketing by bottlers) when its compliance was moving from excellent to virtually perfect.

A different approach to public understanding was needed. At industry level the problem was clear - how to present the work of private sector companies that deliver an essential public service in an aggressively consumer society. Solutions were less clear, but telling the truth about health benefits (and not taking them for granted) was one. The Water For Health project was born.

Confidence and belief

A strategy was developed. Confidence and belief were central - confidence in the quality of tap water, belief that its potential was undersold, in a society that often saw cheap and simple as less attractive than expensive and fashionable. Aims were set:

  • to gain government recognition of good hydration as a core aspect of health policy,
  • to improve access to drinking water in public places,
  • to improve the consumer's awareness and experience of tap water,
  • to clarify the relationship with the bottled water industry.
  • It was always going to be a long haul. But the response was encouraging and there has been real progress. There is now abundant research showing the importance of hydration in improving common conditions such as fatigue or constipation, but also in helping prevent serious illness. This evidence was presented in accessible form, but governments these days also look for broad support.

    Water UK and a number of health promotion groups formed the Water For Health alliance, which welcomed its 20th group member in March this year. It is influencing policy-makers and has helped win the recognition of those running our schools, hospitals, care homes and prisons.

    When it comes to helping improve access to water, Water UK members have led the way, particularly in schools, but also working with hospitals and prisons. This has come naturally alongside many imaginative projects to promote awareness.

    Aesthetics of tap water

    From creating tap water brands (often with branded refillable containers) to supporting the installation of mains-fed coolers, to linking the message to wellbeing campaigns, innovation was the name of the game. This also goes for research into product presentation too. There can be no complacency about the aesthetics of tap water - appearance, taste and smell - especially with consumer expectations growing all the time. What about our relations with the bottled water industry? On health grounds the value of successful tap and packaged water sectors is obvious - water is good for you whatever its source. Also bottled water has a short-term complementary role if a mains supply is interrupted. So it is mistaken to see the two on opposite sides.

    Health qualities

    Claims made for the superior health qualities of packaged water, however subtle, must not and will not go uncontested. Tap water is not second best, though that remains the covert message of some marketing campaigns. Perhaps we should not be surprised - how else can suppliers justify their plans for growth in the household sector, where sales of packaged product are low compared with other developed countries?

    How should we evaluate a strategy that is far from complete? Is it too much to say that it is contributing to a new sense of purpose? Maybe, but at least four useful benefits are emerging:

  • first, Water For Health is driving community engagement. There are additional, credible opportunities to promote tap water. Positive communication adds to corporate reputation and supports the 'licence to operate' all companies need,
  • second, the better health coming from a combination of wider knowledge about hydration and excellent tap water is a worthwhile and visible return on customers' major investment in quality (£4.3B in 2000-2010). Probably not many customers at present link their water bill to individual wellbeing, but it could happen, if water came to be recognised as a health drink instead of just water,
  • third, Water For Health highlights the real values of tap water - universal availability, high quality and low relative cost. And we now know the benefits it delivers define it as a truly progressive service, in tune with the best modern thinking on inclusiveness and health inequality,
  • fourth, the strategy is a natural element of corporate social responsibility. It reinforces the business model, promotes social cohesion and helps reduce risk by increasing customer support.

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