There is a great paradox about water – it costs so little yet it is so valuable.
It is valuable of course because all life needs it to survive, but it is vital to the economy too. Every product we make, sell or consume has embedded water – the water needed to produce the goods.
Its environmental value is almost immeasurable. England’s “rain forests” – the chalk streams of Hampshire, Berkshire, Wiltshire and Dorset – are havens for precious species like otter, kingfisher and salmon.
Sir James Bevan, chief executive of the Environment Agency, recently warned of the “jaws of death” – the moment in 25 years where the amount of water available is outstripped by demand due to climate change and population growth.
Yet because water costs householders just about a thousandth of a penny per litre, most of us never consider its real value or think about how much we use.
This was the theme for a roundtable I chaired in March, around Southern Water’s Target 100 commitment – the kind of ambitious demand management programme we will increasingly need to secure a resilient water future.
The session brought together voices from the water sector, house builders, environmental NGOs and thinktanks. We were joined by Barratt Homes, Business in the Community, Green Alliance, Policy Connect, the 100 Resilient Cities Foundation, South East Rivers Trust, Waterwise and the Wessex Chalk Streams & Rivers Trust.
The findings are important and I want to share them because we all have a role to play.
Changing how people think about water will not be resolved by any one measure but by a combination of education, behaviour change campaigning and regulation.
Firstly, it is important to articulate why people should change how they use water by linking water shortage to things they have an emotional connection with – our chalk streams perhaps or other rivers. The Rivers Trusts, and others, do fantastic work to increase awareness of our environmental impact – but water companies could do more to drive this conversation.
Sometimes small visible differences lead to great change. Introducing a mandatory label on water-using products, such as washing machines and showers, would enable customers to make informed choices at the point of purchase.
A report by the Energy Saving Trust estimated labelling could reduce personal consumption by 22 per cent. This could be done relatively cheaply and, perhaps more importantly, quickly.
It’s also important to understand the amount of water embedded in the food, drink and goods we use every day. From bean to cup, it takes 140 litres to make one cup of coffee. Sugar with that coffee? It takes an astonishing 1,500 litres of water to produce a kilo of sugar. A label showing the water footprint of the products we buy – similar to labelling for fat, salt and sugar – could help increase awareness and change behaviour.
Growing the conversation is not just a job for politicians, for NGOs or indeed water companies. The conversation, and systemic change, can only happen if everyone in the water cycle is taking part.
Ambitions must be bold. Government will be consulting on a national personal consumption target by mid-May and everyone with an interest in water should push for an ambitious target. Existing building regulations should be amended to give water efficiency the same status as energy efficiency. The Future Homes Standard announced in the spring statement must stretch to “world-leading” water efficiency alongside energy.
Of course, part of solving the “cheap but valuable” conundrum is linked to charging. Metering is a key part of Southern Water’s enviable historical success in supporting customers to be more efficient.
As potentially unpopular as it may be, universal metering must be extended beyond “water stressed” areas. For customers of companies such as Southern Water, where metering is long established, a water efficient home can save hundreds of pounds a year and reduce consumption significantly and sustainably.
Demand fell 16 per cent in the years following the introduction of universal metering. It might not be popular with all customers but metering undeniably draws attention to how much water we actually use.
We must even explore changing tariffs and pricing depending on availability and use, just as electricity providers match prices to demand. However, a careful balance needs to be struck between reflecting the true value of water and protecting those that are most vulnerable.
If we are asking people to manage their water use, it’s right that companies are challenged to do more to reduce leakage. For companies to have credible conversations with their customers they must continue reducing leaks and, where possible, exceed expectations.
The challenges are huge – widespread behaviour change is never easy, as those involved in public health campaigns such as anti-smoking or around diet and exercise can attest. And some of the solutions mooted may be unpalatable to many. Sir James was not overstating when he spoke of the “jaws of death”. We face great challenges. But securing a resilient water future is as vital an issue as any we currently face.
Angela Smith is the member of parliament for Penistone and Stocksbridge. The former shadow water minister resigned from the Labour Party in February this year and joined the Independent Group. She previously criticised Labour’s policy to renationalise the water industry branding the plan “potentially disastrous”.