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Hosepipe bans represent a missed opportunity

Water company executives travelling to work yesterday may well have taken a detour to avoid any newspaper stands on their route.

For a sector that is desperate to keep a low profile, front pages screaming about hosepipe bans for millions and outrage over perceived requests to “grass up a granny” are about as unwelcome as it gets.

The temporary usage bans imposed by South East, Southern and Welsh Water this week were never going to be welcomed of course. Despite the mass compliance with far more onerous restrictions over the past few years, there is a unique kind of intransigence sparked by a hosepipe ban, as if there was some constitutional right for an Englishman to bear a sprinkler.

It’s disconcerting to see how the media coverage of the hosepipe bans disproportionately focuses on minor inconveniences for customers versus the underlying implications of the twin records of low rainfall and high demand. One article about the ban in Pembrokeshire, which has seen the driest conditions since 1976, includes the following quote from an outraged resident: “I’m pretty horrified because how am I going to water my tomatoes?”. I’m not trying to downplay the implications of water restrictions on some consumers but this almost seems to be playing it for laughs. It is in contrast to other elements of media coverage around the heatwave, where even The Telegraph seems to be reluctantly admitting we probably should do something about climate change.

The inevitable challenge to a hosepipe ban is why perfectly good tomatoes should be sacrificed when huge volumes of water are still being lost through leakage. It’s a fair challenge in many ways and an area the industry accepts it needs to do better. Water UK has persistently made the point that real improvement on leakage needs proper investment. The trade body points to the examples of Japan and Germany, which have tackled leakage through a strategy of wholesale replacement of pipes, but also highlights the huge cost involved.

Interestingly this is the second comparison to Germany that has struck me this week, with the country also announcing £16 billion every year for the next three years on upgrading the energy efficiency of existing homes.

There is a clear need for the government to be bolder on investment in both these areas but it’s also undeniable that reducing demand – whether energy or water – needs to involve the public as active participants.

This is a message that the water sector in particular is still struggling to communicate, especially in the context of hosepipe bans. There is an understandable reluctance to put the onus on consumers but surely this is a golden opportunity to highlight the consequences of continued high consumption in an age of more frequent droughts.

It seems to me that this opportunity to link the current situation with long-term demand use is still being missed. For example, South East Water’s otherwise comprehensive webpage on information about the ban makes no reference to water saving tips or devices to help with this. These details are available elsewhere on the site, including references in some linked FAQs, but given the traffic this particular page will be getting, it seems like a trick has been missed.

I appreciate that this requires a sensitive approach and isn’t risk-free but the sector cannot shy away from reminding customers that they also have a responsibility in mitigating water scarcity. There is an urgent need to align efforts and find new ways to communicate this message. It’s a topic I look forward to discussing at the Utility Week Forum on 8-9 November, including with CCW’s Mike Keil. You can find out more, and see the agenda here.