Halving the amount of water we all use every day - why not?!
Posted on: May 2019
Nicci Russell, Waterwise Managing Director
Halving the amount of water we all use every day - why not?!.
About the author: Nicci Russell is the Managing Director for Waterwise
Waterwise is the UK-wide campaigning NGO focused exclusively on driving water efficiency. Our vision is that water be used wisely, every day, everywhere.
Our fifth annual Water Saving Week is 29th April to 3rd May 2019 and will be the biggest ever - get involved at #WaterSavingWeek and @Waterwise.
Readers will know that in the UK we each use, on average, 140 litres of water per day. At the 2019 Waterwise annual conference a few weeks ago, we focused on getting to 100 litres or less. Sir James Bevan put a lot of welcome oxygen on the subject with his now infamous ‘Jaws of Death’ speech, in which he said ‘We need water wastage to be as socially unacceptable as blowing smoke in the face of a baby or throwing your plastic bags into the sea.’
In the space of 48 hours over our 2019 conference, I was interviewed on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, BBC News 24 and the Jeremy Vine show on BBC Radio 2. It was fantastic to have such incredible airtime for a subject I care about. Plus I got to meet two feminist heroes of mine in Martha Kearney and Reeta Chakrabarti, and be asked by my favourite ever Strictly star Jeremy Vine whether I wee in the shower! (My answer - I don’t, but I can’t speak for the other members of the family.)
The thing that really struck me out of those broadcast conversations was how genuinely surprised all three presenters were at the average 140 litres per day figure. They just had no idea, and were especially surprised when I asked them to think about how much of that they actually drink. It reminded me once again that we have a long way to go in raising consciousness around the value of water, let alone supporting changes in behaviour.
At our conference, I talked to the audience about the great progress they’ve all been making in terms of the scale and reach of their water efficiency programmes. But I also challenged them. I said, “You’ve committed to halving leakage - why not commit to halving per capita consumption (PCC)?” I anticipated sharp intakes of breath and I got them, but the fact is that Anglian Water has already reached 80 litres with some of the houses in Newmarket it’s been targeting, so it’s doable now if all sorts of measures, incentives and support are thrown at it. My take is - why not throw everything at it?
The challenge in many companies is hardwiring it into the DNA, starting with the executive team. It needs to be front of mind right across senior management - not just for the person who owns the PCC performance commitment - as a solution to the challenges of resilience, affordability, vulnerability, environmental improvement and building customer trust. Most of what we need to do is already happening somewhere in the UK. All this needs is scaling up, and with the right top-level commitment and investment, that can happen. My challenge to water company chief executives is - let’s commit to a PCC of 75. You pick when, and at Waterwise we’ll continue to support and challenge you on your ambition.
The UK government will soon be consulting on setting a national PCC target for England. We’re working with the industry, the Steering Group for our Water Efficiency Strategy for the UK, and the Energy Saving Trust, to come up with some robust evidence for a low target. And you can expect our Waterwise response to set a very ambitious target - we’re well aware that there will be other players within and beyond the sector arguing for a weak target.
Research we carried out in autumn 2018 (using the same partnership as set out above) on a mandatory water efficiency label for water-using goods, showed that this alone could really drive down PCC. We have it for all energy-using products - why not for all products that use water in the home and the garden? The research showed that a government-led mandatory labelling scheme linked to Building Regulations and minimum standards could reduce PCC by 6 litres within 10 years, and 30 litres within 25 years. Amazing!
In the business plans and water resource management plans for England and Wales, we’re seeing more ambition than ever before. But we’d like to see more. In the long term, a few water companies are aiming for 100 litres PCC or lower by 2045, but most are still planning for 115 or more by 2045! And the percentage reduction to 2045 varies from 4.3% to 27%. In the short term, business plan ambition to 2020 for England and Wales ranges from 120 to 151 PCC, and the percentage reduction to 2025 is between 1 and 11%, with most bunching around 3 and 6%.
Rachel Fletcher, Chief Executive of Ofwat, emphasised at Waterwise’s strategy event in November that we all have a role to play. She said ‘There needs to be much more partnership working. I don't think we can really tackle this challenge if we all act alone and in isolation’. We agree. We’ve been working to bring water retailers into the water efficiency conversation and campaign, and also into conversation with water efficiency colleagues in the wholesale companies. Right across the board, we’re seeing increasing ambition, but there’s more to be done.
As Sir James Bevan said in his ‘Jaws of Death’ speech - echoing recent National Infrastructure Commission research – a 2016 water industry and EA report concluded that investing in water resilience was both affordable and cost-beneficial. Whereas a severe drought would cost each household more than £100, the cost per household of the investment that would greatly reduce the risk was only £4 a year.
So let’s commit to halving per capita consumption in the UK! Why not?! If we work together, and get everyone on the programme, across and beyond the sector and its customers, it’s doable.
Waterwise is really grateful to all our Supporters and Affiliates, who fund our work as an independent, campaigning organisation. This enables us to support and challenge everyone to aim higher on water efficiency, for the sake of the environment, society and the economy.