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June 2016

Peter Curtain, MD, Allerton Communications


Peter is an experienced PR adviser to companies, private-equity investors, advisory firms, business organisations and educational institutions. An ex-newspaper Business and City Editor, he has successfully led and participated in communications campaigns relating to renewable energy and clean technology.

Peter Curtain, Director, Allerton Communications*, reflects on infrastructure investment and persuading consumers

Growing up in south-eastern Australia, I remember when water supply became a big issue. It was the ‘big dry’ of 1967, and you can gauge its severity on this ‘drought map’.

As spring became summer, reservoir levels around Melbourne began dropping. For weeks people hoped vainly for the sort of ‘cool change’ that in those parts turn skies from dazzling blue to storm-filled grey in minutes.

The state government introduced water restrictions for the first time. As in Britain later, householders were obliged to shower briefly and less often, fix leaky pipes, save washing for bigger loads only and keep the tap turned off while shaving or brushing. Watering lawns was banned, as was using a hose to water plants and wash cars.

No dobbers
Australians were urged to set aside their natural distaste for ‘dobbing’ and report rule-breakers. There were some unlikely offenders – proud motorists used to washing their cars weekly, and middle-class gardeners who saw water as ‘free’ (rates were so low back then, it may as well have been).

Contractors made good money drilling for groundwater as this escaped the restrictions – flowers bloomed to the noisy accompaniment of mechanical pumps. Churchgoers tested their faith by hiring ‘water diviners’ – dowsers – to save their gardens.

The rains came eventually, but it was a crucial time in Victoria’s water history. Slaking Melbourne’s thirst had been a challenge since the 1850s gold rush and accompanying population boom – now it was a political issue and to achieve change, leaders had to address some ingrained attitudes.
Australia, by no means a wealthy country in the first half of the 20th century, had experienced a widespread increase in prosperity following the Second World War, fuelled by immigration, technology and global demand for commodities.

Reality check
The ‘Lucky Country’ was proud of its good fortune and people were suspicious of limits on consumption. ‘The environment’ was seen as a fad; from the suburbs, the earth looked plentiful and pollution-free.

The 1967 drought was followed by years of investment to boost capacity and streamline supply. But to limit demand, the state government and its infrastructure monopoly, the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works, also looked to change people’s minds.

Taking a lead from the highly successful Keep Australia Beautiful campaign – featuring Abba (then still a breaking act) and a series of television ads portraying ‘litterbugs’ as simpletons – agency creatives got to work on water.

A bad year for the roses
A drip-drip (!) of publicity was designed to engender guilt about taking long showers and running the tap while brushing teeth. Regular bulletins on dam levels started appearing on news channels. Subtly appealing to patriotism, gardeners were encouraged to ‘plant native’ rather than choose thirsty European varieties.
A 'Don't be a Wally with Water' campaign featured characters people could relate to – a cool conservationist and his hapless, wasteful neighbour. Viewers were asked to ‘water slow and deep, twice a week’. (This was a forerunner of the recent Johnny Depp-Amber Heard ‘war on terrier’ video, which proved viral gold comedy while making a serious point about the need to observe disease-preventing quarantine laws.) That same year, 1984, dual-flush toilets became compulsory for all new installations.

Further investment and a shake-up of the industry, involving the setting up of three water retailers, took place over the next two decades.

Then, in 2006, the amount of water flowing into major dams dropped suddenly to a third of 1996 levels, starting what became a longer-term trend associated with climate change.

Having to juggle the often competing priorities of householders, industry, farmers and environmentalists, the authorities researched and reviewed every option in order to limit consumption and conserve supply. Permanent water-saving rules were introduced in 2012 to support now more regular restrictions.
A new generation of consumer became used to novel concepts such as reusing and recycling and greywater.

Changed thinking
Seeing the evidence before them in dribbling taps and low reservoir levels, the population largely got with the programme. Over the years, water pressure was reduced for new homes; low-flow shower heads introduced; open irrigation drains were scrapped on farms and a pipeline was built to take water from the north of the state to the south.

Through a combination of investment and higher rainfall, Melbourne’s water supplies have improved somewhat, but the experience of the past 50 years has led to a more strategic approach to conservation, as shown by the construction of a desalination plant to serve the needs of a still growing population.

As ever, opinions differ on how to limit water use. In 2008, the Victorian Labor state government launched Target 155, a voluntary campaign encouraging individuals to limit water use to 155 litres per person a day. Branded ‘political’ and ineffective, the Liberal-National administration elected in 2010 scrapped T155.

However, a surprise report by one of three government-owned retailers concluded soon after the scheme ended that it actually saved 53 billion litres, and the re-elected Labor leadership has now reinstated the initiative.

What is clear is that people need to be reminded of the need to conserve resources. “Australians generally have very positive attitudes towards water conservation and water saving appliances,” said a 2010 report in the Australian Journal of Water Resources. “However, these are not consistently translated into actual behaviour.”

The main barriers to changing behaviour are perceived inconvenience and impracticality, and the cost of water saving-appliances. Says the report: “There is still substantial potential to be harvested in Australia though water conservation measures.”

* Allerton Communications is a specialist corporate and financial public-relations firm advising energy and environmental-technology clients.

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