Reducing water demand - a water-efficiency wishlist

This summer’s Public Accounts Committee report criticised UK water efficiency, and the authorities’ ability to better manage matters. Niki Roach and Andrew Tucker set out their wishlist for ways to cut water demand and to use a precious resource more wisely.

Covid-19 has transformed the way society uses water, social distancing and changes to daily working locations shifting the balance between household and business water use. Average household water use increased by around 20 per cent and average business water use decreased more than 30 per cent during peak Covid-19 restrictions.

Water-use data from smart meters shows that although business water use is coming back online, household and commercial water consumption are both unlikely to return to pre-Covid levels. And so, as more of us work from home, full time or part time, the old per capita consumption (PCC) baselines used for household water use will no longer apply.

We have a new normal for water use. The new normal makes water efficiency more important than ever. The record dry summer of 2018 also broke records for water demand – but many water companies have experienced even higher peaks this year, during the Covid-19 lockdown and August heatwaves. Higher usage through home-working and schooling and the hot weather combined to push up demand as customers filled paddling pools, watered their gardens and pressure-washed their driveways.

With home-working likely to continue for many years, and with a changing climate making more extreme weather more likely, it is imperative to take a stronger national approach to reduce demand in a growing population.

These challenging times have also cast a spotlight on water policy and regulation. This summer, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) criticised both government’s lack of relevant policy and action and Ofwat’s focus on short-term economics over long-term investment in water infrastructure and resilience, and failure to approve investment despite strong customer support. This is also being seen through the Competition Markets Authority review, as four water companies challenge Ofwat over their 2020-2025 price review outcomes.

However, we are beginning to see signs of wider stakeholder support for water-saving action. When Defra consulted on potential personal water-use targets in 2019, it found overwhelming stakeholder support for introducing some form of national target and mandatory water labelling.

Throughout lockdown a range of stakeholder groups have been discussing and lobbying for fundamental change to the water-demand agenda.

Wish list

So what does action on water efficiency look like? When it comes to improving the UK’s water demand agenda, here’s our wish list for achieving water-efficiency utopia.

  • Implementing a national target: putting water efficiency on the national agenda and embedding water-saving actions within water companies, businesses and society. In the same way that national carbon-dioxide reduction targets have made energy efficiency core business, a national water target could drive similar benefits. Focusing a national target on the actual amount of water taken from the environment, rather than PCC, and aiming for a percentage reduction could offer a better way forward.
  • A national water-efficiency strategy: Waterwise oversees a national water-efficiency strategy document. With input from water companies, government and key sector groups, it offers a clear list of things to improve and who should lead such change. We would encourage future policy and regulatory changes to use this excellent resource.
  • Increased smart water-meter coverage: metering underpins almost all demand-reduction activities – water efficiency and leakage reduction. It’s difficult to fix something if you’re not measuring it. Southern and South-East Water have finished their compulsory meter programmes. Thames Water and Affinity Water are delivering similar rollouts. The 450,000+ smart meters installed by Thames Water are proving to be an industry game-changer. From 10 million reads per day, the company is rewriting the way it understands household and business water use, internal wastage – such as leaky loos – and leakage. Daily data means the company can find and fix leaks faster, and target retrofitting and behaviour-change engagement. Having a comprehensive water-consumption data set is a strong incentive to implement smart meters as quickly and economically as possible.
  • A mandatory independent water label: international examples and recent analysis by The Energy Saving Trust and Artesia show that displaying an independent and mandatory water label on every water-using product would be the nation’s single biggest water-saving action. A mandatory water label supported by government would also enable water-efficiency improvements in newbuild homes, refurbishment and retrofit markets. Let’s take the learning from the energy sector and implement this for water as quickly as possible.
  • Reshaping building regulations: embedding a mandatory, independent water label to select device performance for newbuild housing, for example “all new buildings must install A- or B-rated products” would replace the PCC calculation method, and align to the current fittings approach.
  • Strengthening fittings standards: Multi-sector research conducted over recent years reveals that one in 20 UK homes has a leaky toilet, with average water loss around 200-400 litres per day. Leaky loos are caused by poor design and materials in some flush mechanisms that cause water to flow continuously into the bowl. Leaky loos are also found in around a third of business premises, creating wastage loss of more than 2,000 litres per day. Waterwise has published a position statement on the topic, stating the combined water loss from leaky loos now exceeds some water companies’ total water production, enough to supply several UK cities. We need to strengthen our fittings standards and testing/approval processes to prevent this unnecessary loss of a precious resource.
  • National education: It’s probably fair to say that most people in the UK may not know much about the nation’s water resources, or why we need to save water. “It rains all the time” and “there’s plenty of water” are pretty common responses. We need to raise awareness about water and what actions we need to take. Wholesale water suppliers have been loudest in addressing this; there is little coming from government, something else that the PAC has flagged. If people don’t know about an issue, they won’t act on it. A strong consistent, education message from government would underpin all other demand-reduction actions on our wish list.
  • Working collaboratively with the energy sector: When it comes to retrofitting improvements, getting into the home is often the hardest step. For years NGOs and utility firms have tried to combine delivery of water and energy efficiency, sadly with little success. Even the recent Green Homes Grant Scheme again leaves water efficiency off the table, despite water use in homes being the second-largest part of an average household energy bill or carbon dioxide emission. Joining up energy and water policies and delivery schemes would enable bigger and more cost-effective resource savings for the nation.
  • Per capita consumption (PCC) is a measure of the total water supplied only to households, divided by a total ‘assumed’ population number. It’s a metric typically used to convey water-use messaging to the general public and is one option that Defra is considering for a national target approach. The challenge is, PCC is quite a flawed metric; no one has perfect population data and it doesn’t include business water use. With regulators now embedding PCC targets within water companies, complete with financial penalties, there’s a risk of driving the wrong behaviours. Given how Covid-19 has increased water demand, now is the time to look at a more systematic approach to reduce demand across society; government, regulators, water companies, market sectors and businesses all need to play a role.

This year has shown us, perhaps more clearly than ever before, how connected we are. It has also shown us how quickly change can happen. We have at our fingertips the possibility to alter the course of some global environmental and social challenges.

We will undoubtedly remember this year for Covid-19 and all of its impacts; taking lives and changing lifestyles. But what if we could also remember this year as a tipping-point, that brought a shift in policy direction on saving water? It will take effort by all stakeholders invested in saving water resources to make that a reality.

Niki Roach is CIWEM president. Andrew Tucker is demand strategy manager for Thames Water. Join Niki online for her presidential induction and a fireside chat on Thursday September 17 at 1500-1700hrs

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