It is not surprising that a recent survey of 3,000 UK adults revealed that 76% are not concerned about the amount of water their household uses and only 31% said their household could use less water if needed.
Many households do not have a water meter so it makes no difference to their bills how much water they consume. The mind-set of most Brits is that it is constantly raining so there is no need to be concerned about water use. Even if there is concern, blame is easily shifted to the water companies and their leaking pipes.
The impact of weather and climate change
Unfortunately, the reality does not match this perception. Last year was the driest autumn and winter period that the UK has had in 20 years. The winter is the time when rivers are replenished and groundwater levels rise providing enough water to see us through the drier summer months when water use increases.
One dry winter is not overly problematic, but if we have another difficulties start to mount. One of the impacts of climate change is that weather patterns are becoming more erratic and we can be less reliant on the steady winter rain needed to replenish suppliers. If we do get rain it is increasingly becoming heavier and more intense leading to flash floods and making it much harder to capture for storage.
Can the infrastructure be fixed?
In addition to a changing climate, the south-east of England has a growing population requiring an ever increasing amount of water. This puts more pressure on supplies and makes it increasingly difficult to repair water leaks from our antiquated pipe network, as people get agitated about roads being closed and disruption caused to fix under-ground leaks.
We have a significant challenge looming requiring change to the infrastructure and changes in household habits. There is little indication that the government is in a good place to address the infrastructure challenge. The 25 year environment plan due to be released late last year shows no sign of appearing, indicating that DEFRA is struggling to create a strategy in the aftermath of the Brexit vote.
Building a robust national water infrastructure will require a coherent vision, significant investment and collaboration between competing water companies. It is not a conundrum any politician is likely to grasp willingly as it will be complex, expensive, disruptive and people will not see any direct immediate benefit.
Given this likely stagnation at a policy level, we somehow need to shift public behaviour to become more water aware. To-date campaigns aiming to do this have achieved little cut through. The recent survey found that a quarter of people still leave the tap running whilst cleaning their teeth despite numerous campaigns seeking to change this routine.
So how do we change behaviour?
Perhaps one way to change behaviour is to provoke a debate about our hidden water habits. People are always intrigued about how others live their lives and what is considered normal. How long do most people spend in the shower, how often do people clean sheets, is it considered disgusting not to flush the loo every single time it is used? Testing whether this approach can work is a new joint campaign called #TapChat between charity Hubbub and Affinity Water asking people to come clean about their daily water use.
It will be interesting to see if this nudge approach has an impact on changing behaviour. If it doesn't then other approaches will have to be tried as relying on heavy winter rainfall to replenish water stocks is an increasingly high risk approach for supplying the water that is an essential part of our daily needs.