Technology, Behaviour and Culture for Managing Water Demand

Posted on: January 2018

Sarah Bell, University College London

  Sarah Bell, University College London

Technology, Behaviour and Culture for Managing Water Demand

Demand for water and the capacity of infrastructure systems to meet it varies widely in cities across the world. In cities with growing populations and finite water resources, reducing per capita consumption of water is an obvious strategy for making existing water resources serve more people. As readers of this blog well know, managing demand for water is far from simple. Reliable access to clean water underpins good public health, water use is unconsciously entwined with many of our most mundane and private habits, and water cannot be easily substituted for other resources.

As Zoe Sofoulis and others point out, calls for consumers to treat water as a scarce resource contrast with the logic of water systems that are designed to provide continuous supply. Water infrastructure in cities in the Global North enables water to be used in homes, public spaces and businesses as if it were an endless resource. Metering and pricing provide information to water bill payers that water is a finite commodity, but for most water users, water continues to run as long as the tap is open. As an indicator of the success of modern water infrastructure but a challenge for reducing demand, the lived experience of people in modern cities in the Global North is that taps never run dry. This may be tempered by personal experience of water shortage in other places, stories of water scarcity and bad plumbing from older generations, or care for the local environment, but the message baked-in to modern water infrastructure is that water is endless.

Patterns of water use are the outcome of interactions between technology, infrastructure, water, daily habits and social and cultural expectations and norms. Strategies for reducing water demand are roughly divided into those that focus on improving water efficiency and those that focus on reducing water use. Water efficiency measures aim to maintain modern lifestyles and experiences of water, but with a lower resource demand. Strategies for reducing water use address broader cultural and social assumptions and water using practices, and challenge taken for granted modern expectations for how water is used in cities.

Water demand management therefore includes a very diverse set of approaches including leak reduction, building codes, appliances and fittings, metering, tariffs, labelling, behaviour change, everyday practices and cultures (Table 1). Analytical approaches range from the technical, to the behavioural and cultural, with most theory and practice recognising the interplay between social and technical factors. The focus of theories and techniques for understanding and reducing demand can be placed on a spectrum moving from efficiency to meaning.

Table 1. Theories and methods for reducing water demand



Methods Dominant

Efficiency Technology Leak reduction Engineering
    Building codes Planning
    Appliances and fittings Product design
Behaviour Individual Metering Economics
    Tariffs Economics
    Labelling Marketing
    Behaviour change Psychology
Meaning Collective Practices Sociology
    Material cultures Anthropology

These different approaches can sometimes appear to be in conflict with one another, yet a complementary approach is needed to enable more successful policy and implementation. This is difficult to achieve in management or policy cultures dominated by a particular theory or ideology.

For instance, a management philosophy that insists 'if it can’t be measured it doesn't exist' will ignore important information about the role of culture in determining water use. A policy regime that emphasises individual choice and market-based mechanisms may over-estimate the ability of meters and tariffs to deliver sustained reductions in water consumption. Community-based efforts to change water-use cultures without providing efficient technologies is similarly unlikely to achieve their full potential.

Practical experience and academic research into water efficiency over several decades has shown the complexity of factors shaping water use in cities. Different disciplines and professions have contributed important knowledge about how to reduce consumption, but no-one has a magic wand to wave to make water use in cities sustainable. Cultures of management and policy need to change. We need to move away from imposing one particular world view towards enabling diverse approaches and strategies. This is perhaps our biggest challenge yet in delivering the simple goal of making the water we have serve more people and sustain a healthy environment.

[This post is based on material from Sarah Bell’s latest book 'Urban Water Sustainability: Constructing Infrastructure for Cities and Nature', published by Routledge and/Bell/p/book/9781138929906]