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Chris Cartwright – Critical Infrastructure Market Leader Skills, Technology, Wastewater treatment, Water, Water Excellence, Water treatment, Market insight, Innovate water

The UK water utilities industry is under greater stress than at any other time in its history. It’s not just about external forces such as changes in usage trends and climate change as well as scarcity and unpredictability of supply. It’s also partly because most of our water infrastructure was designed and built in the Victorian era, if not earlier (the world’s first city-level water transfer project, completed in 1613, remains one of London’s main water resources). And of course we cannot forget the huge drive towards digital transformation.

Yet to my mind the biggest challenges the water industry faces are the public’s misconceptions around the sustainability of the UK’s water supply.

Despite a strong national sense of responsibility to decarbonise, combat climate change and protect the environment, only 10% of the public view water consumption as a key consideration – compared to plastic pollution (39%), energy consumption (22%), food waste (16%) and carbon footprint (11%).

While the centring of hygiene during the Covid-19 pandemic did increase people’s appreciation of clean water availability, the perception persists that the UK, consisting as it does of a rainy archipelago surrounded by ocean, can’t be in any danger of running dry.

Yet this is a genuine concern: daily household water usage almost doubled between the 1960s and 2020, from 85 litres to 143 litres per person. Meanwhile, owing to population growth and the effects of climate change, the Environment Agency warns that unless we take action by 2025, the UK will need an extra 3,435 million extra litres of water each day to meet demand – and parts of southern England could run out water by 2040.

It’s not necessarily a new issue either – many of us remember long, dry summers that resulted in hosepipe bans in the 1980 and 1990s. But my point is that consumers simply aren’t sufficiently aware how quickly and easily water can become a scarce resource. Too many of us continue to use large volumes of fresh, clean drinking-quality water in applications where grey or even black water would suffice.

From watering plant beds to running the central heating, grey water has multiple household uses and the potential to significantly reduce our dependence on drinking-grade water – and hence pressure on the water supply.

Countries outside the UK are already tackling this challenge. For example, in South Africa, where Day Zero loomed as a tangible threat as recently as 2018, rain catchment tanks have become standard in most households, their contents deployed for everything from washing cars to flushing toilets to irrigating kitchen gardens.

In the UK, we have looked to technology because, in the long term, the key to balancing supply and demand is the digitised gathering and predicting of usage and supply data. Smart meters will provide this digital foundation.

Yet is there a further opportunity? Might the data that smart meters gather be of use not just in driving efficiency but in changing customer behaviour?

We have seen in the energy sector how smart meter data has encouraged conservation through cost savings. These could certainly apply to the water sector as well, for example:

  • Regular automated meter reads can be used to inform customers of the environmental impact their usage has and advise on how they can save money by reducing that usage
  • Usage more visible and tangible: an app on your smartphone could show how much you’ve used, perhaps in comparison with the national average
  • There is a future in monitoring devices that measure how much you use for washing your clothes, washing food, washing your car; for your central heating or watering the garden. A sensitive enough monitoring system could even charge different tariffs for different categories of usage, or use gamification to reward changes in behaviour.

Trust remains a barrier. Customers do not trust corporates with their data – as we have seen from the recent controversy over NHS data.

Customer experience greatly affects customer trust in a company – simply put, the better a customer’s experience with a provider the more likely they are to regard and trust what the provider tells them.

If utilities across the board improve their customer engagement, those customers may be more willing to participate and share data on a more granular level.

Positive customer experience, coupled with a concerted and coordinated public awareness campaign by Government and water utilities to highlight the danger of water scarcity and how to combat it, could well be the winning formula that raises water’s profile to match that of energy.

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