In search of the one-litre drop

Regulators are putting pressure on water companies to save more and more water, which means consumers will be asked to play a big role as well. Jonathan Reed maintains technology will only get us so far - it is a behavioural shift that is needed.

OFWAT’S WATER supply and demand policy paper puts the onus firmly on water companies to save a minimum of one litre per property per day through efficiency measures.

Ofwat’s targets will be mandatory for water companies in England and Wales from 2010 to help implement government proposals to reduce average water use by 20 litres per person daily by 2030.

Aspirational target

There are also targets for new homes – the Building Regulations are expected to be revised with a consumption target of 125 litres per person a day. The most aspirational target set out in the Code for Sustainable Homes is for water use to be reduced to 80 litres per person daily. Ambitious water consumption targets require a fundamental shift in human behaviour, together with new advances in technology.

Ofwat reports the sum of current water-efficiency activities saves about 20Ml/d.

Many of the improvements in water efficiency have come from technology. People are using less water without actually changing their water use habits. Legislation now requires new toilets to have lower flush volumes.

Another example is the contribution made by energy efficiency. Much of the energy use in dishwashers and washing machines is used to heat the water. Energy efficiency targets therefore encourage reduced water use.

In new build properties, it will be possible to reduce consumption further through the application of rainwater or greywater technologies. Here, non-potable uses of water can be replaced by rainwater or greywater. In existing homes, retrofitting of water-efficiency measures is less practical.

Changing behaviour, rather than technology, may be the most cost-effective approach in existing properties. It is also possible to dictate reductions in demand through financial incentive. Many believe water metering to be a valuable tool in triggering a shift in behaviour. Tariff structures can be discretionary, with an aim to reduce peak use.

Hosepipe bans and other drought measures can trigger a notable reduction in demand. But water companies should only apply restrictions every ten or 20 years. Tariffs and bans represent target setting followed by a top-down approach for incremental gain in the short term. But is it the right way to influence consumers to achieve long-term behavioural change?

There are alternative approaches. Established change models such as rational choice theory and the theory of planned behaviours emphasise self interest, whereas the theory of interpersonal behaviour also considers the social context.

They tell us that a change in attitude does not necessarily lead to a change in behaviour.

Bentham’s neoclassical economic model explains decisions in markets on the basis that human beings are rational and seek to maximise utility.

Decisions based on our lifestyle choices, as considered by economics, would be based purely on rational utility maximisation principles. Similarly, in sociology the theory of rational choice has dominated thinking for centuries; rational behaviour is defined by a necessary, natural or logical association between the end and the means for its attainment.

Rational approach

The emphasis on rationality may be a good theoretical basis for higher-level analysis, but does it replicate faithfully the decision making across a range of areas that affect us directly – water use, transport or health? The rational approach excludes considerations such as comfort and perception. Defra is conducting research into pro-environmental behaviour.

Drivers for this include the aim to reduce 42% of carbon emissions from households. Within the report, water efficiency in the home is highlighted as a headline behavioural goal. The report promotes a segmentation model which divides the public into seven clusters, from waste watchers to stalled starters, each of which shares a distinct set of environmental attitudes and beliefs. The benefit of this approach is that people do broadly fit into these segments and their ability and willingness to act can be mapped to show how they could change to deliver more positive environmental behaviour.

This allows us to target messages more accurately, once we have a better understanding of people’s beliefs.

Behavioural change

The top-down approach to provide information and advice on becoming more pro-environment is laudable, but it infrequently embeds behavioural change in the long term. It assumes people will read information they are sent, and act on it.

The marketing industry has moved well beyond this approach, and to achieve behavioural change the water services industry should follow its example. To achieve desired behaviour change, we have to stop treating people as if they make rational choices.

What can we learn from other industries? We need to influence individuals from within their communities. Within the health sector it has long been recognised that it is more cost effective to change behaviour – smoking, for example – than treat the resulting disease. But poor behaviour results from the interaction of social, biological, psychological and environmental factors.

A recent health campaign to change behaviour relates to obesity in children. The campaign targets parents to provide information and change behaviour in relation to obesity. Part of the campaign focuses on killing with kindness; not promoting a healthy lifestyle to children means that they are more likely to die young.

The transport sector has taken forward a range of approaches to influencing behaviour. Usually these are aimed at changing the transport mode that people use for certain types of journey, to reduce congestion by influencing people to move from the private car to public transport, walking or cycling.

For an intervention to be successful we need to secure critical mass in participation. In 2005 Peter Brett Associates’ Travelsmart project in Moonee Valley, Melbourne, achieved 44% participation from a 10,000 household group.

This was possible through deliberately embedding the programme in the community with local neighbourhood influencers and networkers recruited to directly engage with people.

The water sector has recognised the importance of progressing an integrated strategy of leakage reduction, metering and water efficiency measures – technology, demand management and community consultation.

Current approaches to water efficiency seek to create a partnership with community stakeholders. Water companies distribute audit packs and other water-efficiency devices, promote water efficiency through education and research studies and take forward research projects to encourage greywater reuse and rainwater harvesting. It is a promising start to a long-term programme of behavioural change.

Research carried out for the ESRC and UKWIR related to the drought of 2004-06 suggested that:

· Further debate is required about more sophisticated and targeted demand management strategies about how water is used

· That how water is used is often defined by a social context

· There are different approaches taken in other countries and cultures that could lead to behavioural change

Building on the understanding of the different approaches to behaviour change allows us to consider new models and techniques to promoting water efficiency and wider pro-environmental behaviour.

Key to this is moving away from the rational approach, which suggests people will act in a certain way once given the right information. We need to communicate from within communities.

The internet and wide range of media tools available today allow us to engage with and target messages to different segments of the population, based on their potential likely response.

Jonathan Reed is director of Water Management for Peter Brett Associates.


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