Understanding the desire for ‘freshness’ – a first step towards saving water

June 26, 2008

Earlier this year the government announced a new strategy for a more efficient and sustainable use of water. This would involve a reduction in per capita consumption from 150 litres per day to 130 litres per day.

A new Economic and Social Research Council publication, ‘Behavioural Change and Water Efficiency’, which accompanied a seminar organised jointly with UK Water Industry Research Ltd, looks at future water management from a social science perspective. Professor Elizabeth Shove, University of Lancaster, says that the current focus on reducing per capita consumption does not recognise the diverse ways in which water is used in everyday life.

‘Demand for water should not be seen as the consumption of a uniform substance but as a consequence of the things that people do that require water, such as washing, laundry, growing vegetables or children’s parties,’ she explains. ‘A sociological perspective tries to understand how routines like the daily shower and frequent laundering have developed and why it has become normal to value ‘freshness’, ‘fitness’ and instant relaxation. We need this information to work out which practices associated with water will respond to metering and price signals.’

Professor Joe Morris and Dr Richard Franceys, Cranfield University, look at the economics of water pricing and discuss whether it is possible to bring together the guidelines of economic efficiency and fairness and equity. They pay special attention to the development of rising block tariffs, which have had mixed success in some overseas countries and are currently being trialled by a number of UK water companies.

Richard Franceys explains that charging for water is designed to ensure that water companies can meet the long-term costs for capital maintenance while at the same time ensuring that the right amount of water goes to the right people and uses. He says the introduction of differential, rising block tariffs, requires more information about customer water consumption habits: ‘Somewhat surprisingly for an industry promoting variable tariffs and ‘intelligent’ metering, there is a relative dearth of knowledge about how and why households use water the way they do, and how they might respond, not only to variable tariffs, but an array of initiatives which can encourage people to use water wisely.’

Water companies not only have a statutory responsibility to minimise withdrawal from existing water resources and promote water efficiency, they also have to demonstrate the cost-effectiveness of these measures. In his presentation on the industry perspective, Luke deVial, Head of Resources, Wessex Water, explains a new peak seasonal tariff, is being trialled by his company. He acknowledges that water companies could do more to encourage efficient water use but argues that economics does not always tell the whole story.

The report also includes an overview of government policy by Helena Busby, senior policy adviser, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and explains why an independent review of charging for water is necessary. Launching the new strategy, Future Water, Hilary Benn said: ‘Our current system of charging, based largely on the value of people's homes 35 years ago, is archaic and rife with anomalies. We need a fairer system that offers incentives to conserve water. In areas of serious water stress it's pretty clear that this will mean near universal metering before 2030.’

Helena Busby concludes: ‘The important message for consumers is that if you save water, you can save energy and you can save money.’

Source: Economic and Social Research Council

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