The how and why of drought resistance: metering is only the start in delivering behavioural change among water customers.

How great is the pressure on our water resources? According to a report published by Water UK, parts of the UK have received less rainfall than the Sahara Desert in recent years. The prospect of more frequent droughts is closer than many of us might imagine, and how we respond now will have a huge bearing on whether our taps keep running for future generations. A key part of this challenge is transforming consumers’ understanding of and relationship with water.

Water companies have been alive to this issue for some considerable time, particularly in the south east of England where the threat of drought is at its most acute. Six years ago, Southern Water embarked on the country’s first large-scale compulsory metering programme as part of wider efforts to help tackle the growing demand for water. More than 400,000 water meters were installed across the company’s supply area, changing customers’ relationship with water and how they pay for it.

CCWater worked closely with Southern Water from day one to ensure that customers understood these planned changes and that their concerns were handled sensitively. But what has the experience been like for customers – and has it encouraged them to use water more wisely?

This summer we commissioned research with Southern Water to find out how its customers felt about the metering programme. Encouragingly, most households had a good experience, with clear and effective communication from the company and an efficient installation. Where metered customers did experience problems, they tended to be resolved quickly, thanks to measures including a dedicated metering telephone number and frequent contact from the company.

Not surprisingly, many customers’ concerns centred on the financial impact of metering and particularly the unpredictability of their bill. This motivated many households to use less water in an attempt to save money. But if the savings failed to materialise – or live up to their expectations – then some customers’ efforts to save water evaporated over time. In other cases, environmentally aware customers tended to be saving water already.

That doesn’t mean metering does not have an important part to play in protecting our diminishing water resources. The experiences of Southern Water customers show that metering can get households thinking more about how they use water, particularly when it results in lower bills and they are given the right level of support from their water company. It also presents a golden opportunity through face-to-face conversations for water companies to inform customers of some of the challenges the sector faces.

But metering is not a silver bullet for addressing water scarcity, especially when consumers’ primary motivation at present is to save money. Metering can be part of the solution but it has to form part of a wider strategy if our ambition is to achieve the level of social and behavioural change that has been achieved in road safety or household recycling.

That means offering consumers more innovative approaches to reducing water use, helping them understand why water scarcity should matter to them, and changing how we all act and think about water. All of these things are particularly important given that in the past year only one in five adults reports having seen or heard something about the pressure being exerted on our water resources.

But consumers will also expect to see water companies doing all they can to provide a safe and reliable water supply for current and future generations. Consumers are likely to be unforgiving of any delay in reducing leakage or vital investment in a resilient water supply.