Improved efficiency requires cultural change

For Britain to achieve significant improvements in water efficiency, there must be a cultural shift to accept the importance of saving water, not only at a corporate level, but also on behalf of the individual. RAJ Arthur reports.

Britain must adjust itself to an altered culture of water use, that recognizes the fact of scarcity as population rises.


Much housing development is planned for the south-east – an area relatively short of water.

Admittedly, when employment and population expand naturally from existing centres the easiest short-term solution is to build new houses there. But increasing aridity could hit the main areas of rising population and housing development, not to mention arable farming.


Britain’s use of water for farming competes with other needs in areas of relative scarcity, and spray irrigation (a calculated 1% of all water use) often takes place at the summer demand peak. Farmers are nevertheless resisting cuts. The impact of sudden withdrawal can destroy a whole year’s crop.

The EA’s remedy is for farmers to increase the amount of storage in small farm reservoirs.


A demonstration of what can result from insufficient planning came at the end of July, when Kentish villagers were left without water on a Friday evening. Mid-Kent Water’s answering machine stated blankly; “our offices closed until Monday”. The Telegraph reported: “Tempers flare as taps run dry – the nearest thing to a lynch-mob.”

Mid-Kent blamed the public for using too much water and the Met. Office for underestimating the heatwave. An influx of 100,000 people to the World Super-Bikes event at Brands Hatch certainly did not help. A bad week for Mid-Kent ended with Ofwat’s decision to hold an inquiry into the incident.

How a community handles water is a fundamental part of its culture. The EA’s policy document “Saving water: taking action” shows the difficulty of persuading people to change.

Mid-Kent has been one of several companies to challenged the EA’s approach to demand management in the consultation process, complaining that “legitimate use of water appears to be somehow socially unacceptable”.


Since metering is a potential route to saving water, there is concern that the highest incidence of metering so far is only 40% (Anglian Water’s region).

The Government’s ruling on free meters, while consistent with policy, is not working smoothly. People resent the installation of meters in new houses, which they see as compulsory metering in breach of government pledges.

Some also dread the idea that a meter could go wrong and run up a huge bill. A CIWEM response to the EA (1995) stated: “There is no doubt that in some regions customers feel alienated by their water companies and may therefore not take easily to demand management strategies.” From the company angle, the distrust might seem exaggerated.

All bodies concerned with metering have emphasised the need to protect large families and people with special needs, but the “special measures” are seldom spelled out.

Incentives to save come into play only after a meter has been installed. A customer in principle might then choose to invest in water-saving appliances, but so far the payback periods are long. This is where better and cheaper technology could make a real impact.

Efforts by companies to promote water economy, as all are required to do, follow broadly similar lines. However, in the wetter north, England’s will to economise grinds to a halt.

North West Water reports that, although the population has risen slowly, customer demand has grown by over 70% since the 1960s.

Now, with a strong focus on leakage reduction, North West automatically meters customers who use unusually high quantities of water for non-domestic purposes.

Efficient technology

In many places hippos for toilet cisterns and water butts for garden irrigation have been launched, although there is limited enthusiasm for hippos if they lead to double-flushing.

Southern Water’s campaign has resulted in the sale of 20,000 water butts. Wessex has also reported a good response to its low cost butt scheme.

Metering may become compulsory for garden sprinklers. Most companies now promote water-efficient garden design. At Leeds General Infirmary, irrigation pipes and 5000-gallon tanks support a system of rainwater harvesting that shows how to run a garden without tap-water.

About 12% of domestic water demand is for washing machines, but that figure seems to be falling. New DETR regulations will bring water-saving close to the physical limits. New, more water-efficient washing machines now on sale will gradually replace less efficient models. Cooperation with detergent manufacturers could also reduce wash temperatures, saving energy and water.

The washing machine market is nearly saturated, whereas only a quarter of the potential market for dishwashers has been exploited.

Campaign group Going for Green has carried out some independent studies. One dishwasher for a family of four appears to be slightly more efficient than the kitchen sink.

Greywater recycling, where water from showers and baths is recycled to flush toilets, remains an expensive option in the short-term.

Quality is important, and there must be some disinfection. Problems can occur with foam and turbidity.

With long payback periods and the need for extra maintenance acting as a disincentive, the era of widespread greywater recycling has still not arrived.

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