Public must be persuaded to embrace water efficiency

Water users will not be persuaded to cut their consumption until they can be convinced that there really is a shortage and it is in their best interests to do something about this.

This was the underlying theme of a seminar arranged by the Economic and Social Research Council and UK Water Industry Research this week.

The Behavioural Change and Water Efficiency debate looked at differences between consumption patterns in Britain and comparable European countries and considered ways to bridge the gap.

One of the main problems, according to delegates, was the difficulty of convincing the public that there could be a genuine drought in a rainy country like England.

But factors such as a lack of storage and poor drainage due to over-development means that most of the rain that falls in the UK is back in the sea within five days and increasing demand in densely-populated area is putting a strain on those limited resources.

The issue of metering also raised its head, with delegates pointing out that where customers are charged according to the volume of water used – as is the case in most of Europe – they tend to be more frugal.

Another perceived problem was the relative cheapness of water with customers in the UK paying about half the amount of their German equivalents.

But in a country which had enjoyed several decades of affluence, there was a danger that upping water prices would not have the desired effect, and the solution had to be found by changing attitudes rather than the bill.

There is also an urgency to persuade the public to change their habits, said delegates, because water use patterns are set to shift.

As things stand, domestic consumption in the UK is very high but this is offset by low consumption in the industrial and agricultural sectors, as high rainfall means irrigation and abstraction are not always necessary.

But climate change could force farmers in particular to hugely increase their water use, and this could plunge the UK into a water crisis that would need more than an occasional hosepipe ban to resolve.

Sam Bond

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