In the latest of a series of articles exploring specific pledges in Utility Week's Election 2019 Manifesto, we examine why water scarcity has failed to alarm the public to the extent other looming environmental crises have. How can we communicate this urgent water efficiency message and what can the next government do to facilitate this?

Parts of the country have less water per person available than Morocco and populations are only set to rise. In London an 8.8 per cent population increase is expected by 2026 and the household and business demands threaten to outstrip supply.

As part of Utility Week’s election manifesto we are calling on the next government to set out clear energy and water efficiency strategies as part of the effort to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. For the water sector Utility Weeek is calling for a national campaign promoting more responsible use of water.

Water efficiency manager at Southern Water, Ben Earl, says the issue must been seen as societal, not just for water companies to fix and changing habits will take a significant change of mindset.

“We need the David Attenborough of the water world – someone with huge public following to get across the message of how important water is to us in our daily lives.”

Water companies have made significant individual and joined up efforts such as the Love Water campaign to encourage customers to reduce consumption but per capita consumption (PCC) is not falling fast enough.

Earl believes a nationwide campaign with government backing is required.

“What we are calling for is a shift in the public conversation around this from something that you just use to beat up water companies on to something that’s a shared responsibility. It’s a societal issue not just a company one.”

Compulsory water labelling is one swift change the government could introduce that would benefit consumers and the environment. The Energy Savings Trust released a report that showed labelling could reduce consumption by 31 litres per person per day.

That view is echoed by Tom Kelly, wholesale director at SES Water who tells Utility Week the sector’s plans to reduce customer consumption will only deliver part of the journey to sustainable use of this vital commodity.

“Through the introduction of compulsory water labelling on white goods and water fittings, building regulations that require water re-use on new properties and mandating water retailers provide water efficiency services to all their customers, the government has multiple roles to play,” Kelly says.

“In partnering with water companies and technology providers, the next government has the ability to move water efficiency to the next level, and in doing so, help create significant and lasting benefits to our environment and climate.”

The climate crisis is being felt around the world but in an often-rainy country like the UK it can be hard to believe there is a shortage. Demand must be lowered so abstraction can be reduced especially from ecologically precious chalk streams, which are as diverse and important as rainforests but also drying up.

For these reasons we cannot afford to take water for granted, as Jack Hunter, research fellow at IPPR tells Utility Week. “Even regions with relatively high levels of water resilience, including the north west and Yorkshire, face significant pressures on water supply in future. The UK is lagging behind other countries with regards to water efficiency, and unless we take action now then this will pose increasing risks to people’s health, the natural environment and the resilience of the economy.”

There’s no denying the role water companies have in reducing leakage and continuing to spread the message on lowering consumption. Many offer water saving gadgets to households and tips on water efficiency to show how much can be saved.

Areas with high metering mean households can be more aware of the amount of water being used especially if customer bills change when the meter was installed.

Hunter says water companies need to play their part, but this is a shared problem and it needs shared solutions.

“Politicians in Westminster, and those at a local level, should make a concerted effort, together with the water industry, to minimise future demand across industry, businesses and households. This will include requiring higher water efficiency standards in new developments, working with retailers to remove unnecessarily wasteful products such as large garden swimming pools, as well as lending their support and resources to campaigns encouraging more responsible water use.”

For Nicci Russell, managing director of Waterwise, water is the forgotten element of the climate change debate.

“Meeting net zero is essential – and we simply won’t manage it if we don’t factor water efficiency into the UK’s plans. Pumping, treating and heating less water both to and from and inside homes and businesses can make a significant contribution to net zero.

“Making the water we do have go further is essential in adapting to climate change – we are already seeing water scarcity right across the UK and will see more, longer and more extreme droughts in our lifetimes. There’s an opportunity to be way more ambitious on water efficiency under whatever structure the industry takes – public, private or somewhere in between: all it takes is the will.”

Jo Dow, chief executive of Business Stream, stresses that change will not be achieved unless the water consumption of businesses is factored in.

She says: “Problems such as water shortages during periods of drought are likely to continue and this will have a significant impact on our environment and customers’ day-to-day business operations unless we all work collectively to take action. We are therefore supportive of any efforts to help promote the importance of water efficiency, including Utility Week’s plans to launch a national water efficiency campaign. We would only urge that the campaign covers business customers as well, given they consume around 25 per cent of all the water used in the UK.”

An Anglian Water spokesperson says the company would wholeheartedly support any national initiative to give water efficiency the profile it needs, given the nationwide challenges we face.

“Operating in the driest and one of the fastest growing regions in the country, water conservation could not be more important, but we know that we’re not alone in facing this challenge. We work tirelessly to tackle these challenges and encourage our customers to work with us, and would support the water industry and any future government coming together both in policy and campaigning to tackle this issue together.”

A well-intentioned campaign to discourage people from flushing anything down their drains or toilets apart from the three Ps ran throughout October. It was well-publicised and had a catchy name, the sector got behind it with some companies running parallel social media campaigns linked to fatbergs and blocked pipes. Despite this the response from the public was only lukewarm.  A lot of effort from the companies behind Unblocktober only managed to convince 4,500 people to commit to not flushing away FOGs, wet wipes and other products that should be destined for the bin. Although 78 per cent of them said they were optimistic they could maintain the new habits, one in five participants was only ‘somewhat optimistic’ of altering their habits after 31 days of focusing on good drain health.

If a campaign as seemingly straightforward to follow as not chucking oil down the drain for a single month fails to get mass traction, it will take a lot to change the nation’s habits permanently.

That’s why Utility Week is calling on whoever the next government will be to make water efficiency a priority and ensure the responsibility is shared with the public, not just the companies to reduce PCC.

Read more about the manifesto pledges here