The Love Story of Water

Posted on: January 2017

Daniela Flor, UCL

Daniela Flor Cevallos - UCL, London

  Daniela has 6 years of experience in sustainable development projects in the public and private sector. She is currently working as a consultant in projects related to the efficient use of resources in Latin America. Her research has focused on understanding complex systems to reduce the risk of failure during the implementation of policies and strategies.

During our whole life, we deal with complex systems and we make decisions based on the information we have. One of the most complex systems is love where we have to deal with multiple variables. Our love for someone changes over time and it could be affected by the love we receive, our priorities and numerous variables. Water efficiency is also a complex system and is affected by the perceived benefit we receive, our interest towards water conservation and our priorities. Every single day, we use water. We benefit from it. Water makes us feel alive. Water makes us feel clean and healthy. Water is great, right? Maybe, it is better than most of our relationships. So, why is so difficult to have a happy love story with water? The problem is that we love water so much that we want to spend a lot of time with it. Maybe we are so used to have water that we take it for granted, until our relationship becomes weak and water becomes scarce. After reaching this fragile point in our relationship, we try to solve problems with flowers or with a nice dinner, and relationships are not so simple.  Water efficiency behaviour is affected by many variables and each variable is entangled with physical and social factors.

Understanding the system

Not understanding the system is like going on a blind date and expecting it will go perfectly.  So let’s say that we go on a blind date, and we comment about the actual government, football or religion. We have three possible outcomes, our date will strongly agree, strongly disagree or be strongly indifferent. The outcome could affect the whole night! So probably a little research on Facebook or asking a friend could help us obtain the outcome that we want. The same happens with water. We can go on a date and talk about the importance of saving water, and we discover that our blind date takes showers of 30 minutes. It is a slap in our face! However, our environmental consciousness, tells us that we should take action, so we try to persuade our date, but that only makes our date angry, because we really do not understand the reason of his or her consumption.

Currently, as an effort to understand water consumption and reduce the risk of failure in our “blind date” different methodologies to model water demand in households have been established. I constructed a model using a system dynamics approach by incorporating social, physical and technical systems. The “water consumption system” was constructed to understand the relationships among variables, showing that metering, occupancy, leakage, household type, consumer behaviour, water awareness, water cost and technology are key variables to understand the behaviour of water consumption in a household. Therefore, proposing strategies for reducing water consumption should focus on the variable or group of variables that will create the most favourable outcome.

For sure there is not an exact recipe for success in love, and there is not an exact strategy or policy that will create a perfect love story with water, but certainly we can take informed decisions based on research and understanding of the complex relationships. Findings from my research showed that the most important thing is to understand: the bigger picture.

The bigger picture: A chain of events

We have heard about love at first sight. But is it really love at first sight? Or is a chain of events that make us love someone? Love is complex, and it will depend on the mood we have at the moment we meet someone, if we had a good sleep, our beliefs toward the adequate life partner, among other things. Similarly, happens with water: Do we simply start caring about water and have an efficient water consumption? Not really. So how do we influence this chain of events? System dynamics can help us understand the bigger picture.  The results from my research showed that implementing policies or strategies independently will not reduce water consumption as much as when we implement integrated policies. Now, we could think that probably by implementing combined strategies we can reach the level of water consumption that we want and have this love at first sight with water. Promoting policies such as water meter for all, awareness and installation of efficient appliances reduced water consumption, but this reduction did not reach the expected levels. The explanation can be compared again with love and relationships.

At the beginning everything is new in a relationship so the attractiveness for someone increases over time, though, it reaches a point where it stabilises. It touches a cap. A comfort zone, where attractiveness turns into love if we have reached sufficient attractiveness. Regarding water, the model showed that metering, awareness and efficient appliances can reduce water consumption over time. However, water consumption during the years stabilises with no further reduction and does not accomplish the target stated by the UK government. This effect is caused by balancing relationships among variables, where the uptake of efficient appliances depends on awareness and cost-benefit relations. The more awareness and economic benefit in the installation of efficient appliances the more the water reduction. But at the same time when water consumption reduces, the cost-benefit relation of installing efficient appliances becomes less attractive, or we do not change our consumer behaviour because we perceive that we are water efficient. We reach our comfort zone. And if we do not find love in this zone the system does not reach its objective. Therefore, other incentives or practices should be implemented to steer this attractiveness towards water reduction into the love story that we want. The research showed that we can disrupt this comfort zone by increasing occupancy in households. If we increase occupancy by an average of three occupants per household, then a decrease of 10 percent was observed in water consumption. Increasing occupancy is difficult, so this research suggested trying to imitate high occupancy by the creation of common areas of water usage e.g. washing and drying rooms, which leads to a reduction of 8 percent in water consumption by implementing a combined policy.