Spotlight on water efficiency

It's all very well building increasingly large systems to cope with rising demand for water. But, ask Elizabeth Shove, Heather Chappells and Will Medd of Lancaster University, aren't we missing something here?

Two sentences, which introduce a recent Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) policy briefing document, reflect widespread acceptance of the view that deliberate initiatives are required to change the ways in which people use water:

  • “The Government is confident that it will be possible to reduce current average per capita consumption of water from 150l/day to 130l/day by 2030.”
  • “Understanding and changing household attitudes and behaviour towards water consumption is also a key element in Government strategy on water efficiency.”

The ESRC policy briefing document contributes to an outpouring of debates, reports and seminars on the subject of “behavioural change and water efficiency”, accompanied by a concerted effort to understand how policy instruments like those of metering, pricing and information might be used to reduce average per capita consumption. In framing the problem in these terms, commentators make a number of assumptions:

  • That water is a uniform commodity or resource
  • That individual consumers choose to use more or less of it
  • That these choices are informed by information and price – hence the significance of metering

Sociological research carried out at Lancaster University suggests that this is a deeply problematic and ultimately misleading way of thinking about domestic water consumption.

In everyday life, water is consumed and used not as such, but as an integral part of services like those of cleaning, disposing, playing and growing. Patterns of consumption vary and change not as a result of individual choice, but as a consequence of such diverse routines as showering, bathing, laundry, using the toilet and gardening.

In other words, water-consuming practices depend on shared conventions and understandings and are unavoidably bound up with concepts of propriety, material infrastructures and culturally significant interpretations of what it is to be a normal member of society.

First let’s consider showering. Industry forecasts predict a five-fold increase in the number of litres used for showering between 1991 and 2021, accompanied by an equally dramatic decline in the use of the bath. Why do so many people now take a daily shower as a matter of course, and what new routines do these figures imply?

In order to understand the dynamics of this particular form of water consumption, we need to take a long-term view. In Ancient Rome, bathing was a social activity which had little or nothing to do with hygiene. In the Middle Ages, getting wet was perceived as dangerous: it was so because the skin was thought to be porous hence vital fluids might leak out and horrible diseases might seep in.

The medicinal benefits of hydrotherapy were much discussed during the 19th century, as were the risks of waterborne disease. Not so long ago, bathing – now positioned as an essentially private activity associated with freshness, invigoration and relaxation – was defined in terms of public health, civilisation and sanitary science.

In their time, quite contrasting interpretations of water, hygiene and the body have been seen as normal, and all have had consequences for the extent and nature of water consumption and demand. Though the daily shower now seems normal, it has not always been so.

Looking ahead, there is no reason to suppose that present practices will persist unchanged. In asking the question: “What will be normal in the future?” we would do well to recognise that technologies and ideas co-evolve. For example, the history of personal bathing and showering is undoubtedly related to a range of material and infrastructural developments, such as the availability of domestic water supplies and hot-water systems.

As indicated above, the need for these systems, and for the networks of reservoirs and pumping stations on which they depend, is in turn associated with forecasts of demand which themselves embody all manner of assumptions about need and waste and about the quantities of water required in daily life.

Garden watering

A second example, this time relating to outdoor water use, draws attention to other equally important dimensions of ordinary consumption. A project undertaken by Will Medd and Heather Chappells investigated responses to the 2006 drought in South-east England.

Instead of looking at figures describing peak demand and attitudes to the environment, the researchers visited homes and gardens to find out how people were actually responding to the drought. They conducted a programme of interviews with 22 households living in suburban homes, most with gardens.

These interviews focused on everyday practices such as bathing, laundry, watering the garden and washing the car and were designed to find out how activities were prioritised and what was non-negotiable. Responses varied widely. For instance, it was clear that garden layouts, watering technologies, work, leisure and family commitments structured what people took to be obligatory or unavoidable uses of water.

Gardens used as play areas for children, as extensions of the living room, or as vegetable plots were varied, and variously intensively thirsty. For some people, it mattered hardly at all if the grass – already damaged by many games of football – turned a bit more brown.

Others took care to water their plants in advance of inviting friends round for a summer garden party, but were willing to let them wilt thereafter. By contrast, keen gardeners were often devoted water managers, designing and operating a DIY infrastructure of water butts, lengths of hose and regimes of mulching. Respondents’ orientations to the garden were clearly associated with different interpretations of necessary watering.

People use water outside for a wide range of activities. Apart from watering vegetation, the need for which was also determined by garden size, planting, and micro-climate, respondents used gardens for washing boats or cars, hosting parties and entertaining children. In this context, anticipating and influencing future water demand is in essence a matter of anticipating and influencing future forms of outdoor leisure, each of which is associated with a different set of watery obligations.

Policy and practice

Strategies like those of metering, pricing and information put the onus on end users – treating them as totally autonomous, variously wasteful actors to be influenced, guided and controlled. In contrast, our research repositions users as social beings involved in and caught up by ordinary projects like those of maintaining normal standards of hygiene, or of having friends round for a barbeque in the garden. This conceptual move has practical implications. First, it suggests that future patterns of water demand depend upon how a range of apparently unrelated practices – including gardening, laundering, bathing – evolve.

Normal methods of describing and understanding water demand in terms of average per capita consumption obscure the distinctive dynamics at stake in each of these domains of practice. By implication, future research should attend to the changing trajectories of the different practices of which water consumption is composed.

Second, it suggests that the everyday impact of restrictions, such as hosepipe bans or of metering, is quite literally filtered by existing regimes and routines within the home and outside. Various studies have shown that the introduction of metering results in something like a 10% reduction in demand, but we have little or no idea where this 10% comes from. Water managers and planners need to enquire further if they are to discover exactly which water consuming practices are involved and which habits are on the move.

Less obvious, but just as important, the everyday practicalities of showering and using water in the garden are themselves structured by contemporary infrastructures within the home. For example, small hot-water storage tanks place restrictions on having a deep bath; water pressure matters for other kinds of watering and showering – and beyond.

By assuming that water use is a matter of individual choice, and in separating discussion of supply from that of demand, policy initiatives push these vital considerations into the background. In so doing, they airbrush out the active role of providers, utilities and regulators all of whom have a stake in configuring infrastructures and all of whom are implicated in managing patterns of actual and potential demand.

Inventing and promoting technologies for home and garden is big business – a report published by the UK Climate Impacts Programme in 2002 found that sales of garden-watering equipment in the UK had risen from £21M to £61M in the previous four years.

As well as recognising that companies like Unilever, Procter and Gamble, B&Q, Wickes and Homebase have a hand in shaping diverse water-consuming practices, it is important to acknowledge that estimating, forecasting and infrastructure planning revolves around tacit understandings of necessity and waste. Rather than focusing exclusively on the end-consumer, and rather than concentrating on his or her individual behaviour, the more significant challenge is that of understanding and influencing the social, cultural and technical systems that underpin contemporary and future practices and patterns of demand.

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