The water sector needs radical behaviour change that cuts demand for water, says Nicci Russell, managing director of Waterwise.

At an event with water company chief execs last month, there was some friendly joshing about taking carrier bags to the supermarket – and walking back home to get them rather than paying the 5p. The water sector needs a bit of this gold dust – radical behaviour-change that cuts demand.

In April this year, Southern Water launched the ‘River Itchen challenge’, a targeted 12-month campaign in a group of villages to the east of Winchester.

The project means everyone in a ‘district metered area’ is offered a water saving home visit, with bespoke behavioural change advice, free products fitted, and leaky loos fixed. Savings are also carefully monitored.

There’s a partnership with the local primary school, and visits to small businesses. There are also rewards of between £15,000 and £50,000 for water savings of up to 25 per cent – and the Parish Councils choose what to spend this on.

The River Itchen challenge is one of four ‘abstraction incentive mechanism’ initiatives agreed with Ofwat (to reduce the amount of water taken in sensitive river catchments). It’s testing behaviour-change in a more affluent area – not always the easiest consumption to reduce.

Customer participation

In North Hampshire people use up to 50 litres per day above the regional average. To help reduce this, Southern Water is helping customers think differently about the value of water. A direct link is made with the local chalk stream – these are beautiful and almost globally unique to parts of England – to show how cutting demand can help safeguard local wildlife. So far not so new. The new bit is that residents are offered a share in the financial savings generated by cutting demand.

For Southern Water, this links directly to deferred investment – the amount they can put off investing in new resource by saving more water now. It’s being tested to see how effectively it drives community participation and to model extension to larger areas.

Waterwise loves this sort of thing. It’s far more cost-effective to save water now than try and source more in the future. And linking in the community angle means water efficiency is being used not just to increase service resilience but also customer participation – which will lead to a more customer-led sector. Just the kind of approach we hope our new leadership group for water efficiency and customer participation, being launched 9 June, will lead to more of.

As Ben Earl, Southern Water’s water efficiency manager, says: “Research we commissioned from independent thinktank Green Alliance showed that simple water efficiency measures can save our customers up to £78 each year. We wanted to go further and see if sharing the proceeds with communities would lead to a more dramatic effect.

“This trial will help shape a more ambitious programme as part of the AMP7 business plan. There is increasing recognition that we need to better manage water demand to provide a resilient water supply. A community incentive could provide a significant boost to that goal.”