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Applying behavioural science to manage England’s water resources


  • Blog
  • 22nd Mar 2019

The world is running out of water, but surely not ‘rainy Britain’, right? Wrong: even Britain is on track to face water supply shortages by 2050. Severe droughts and water shortages pose significant risks to agriculture, power generation, health services, wildlife, and natural habitats. The Environment Agency’s CEO says the water shortages pose an ‘existential threat’ to the country. Today is World Water Day, the UN observance day for the importance of freshwater, and therefore a ‘timely moment’ to raise awareness.

Avoiding water shortages requires both improvements to supply infrastructure and reductions in consumption. The Environment Agency’s goal is to reduce the average person’s daily water consumption from 140 litres to about 100-110 litres.

Changing Behaviours With Behavioural Science

This is an ambitious goal, but we believe interventions based on behavioural science can significantly reduce water consumption at low cost. In a piece of further good news, smart water meters, which continue to be rolled out across the UK, can enhance the use of these interventions.

Most of us have no idea that a flush of a toilet, for example, uses 9 litres of water, or that a 90-second shower uses around 15 litres of water. Likewise, most of us don’t know how much water we use every year, and while ignorance is bliss, it’s also a big barrier to change. Smart water meters have therefore shown to reduce water consumption just by providing information. Internal research from water companies indicates that metered customers use about 12% less water than customers without meters.

Yet we hypothesise that providing information is just the start. Smart water meters provide suppliers with hourly (and sometimes even higher-frequency) consumption data, which opens up many interesting possibilities. Companies can give personalised tips to customers. They can provide snapshots of how a customer’s water consumption compares to their neighbours’. Even more creative ideas include ‘gamifying’ water conservation, much as health apps gamify the amount of exercise one does each day. Companies could even run friendly neighbourhood-versus-neighbourhood competitions to be the ‘biggest loser’.

How Current Interventions Are Faring in Reducing Water Consumption

In the US, multiple studies found that giving customers feedback on how their water consumption compares to their neighbours’ drove reductions in consumption. In California, customers received a ‘WaterScore’ comparing them to ‘average’ and ‘efficient’ households; researchers (Mitchell and Chestnut, 2013) found that this intervention reduced water consumption by 4.6%. In Georgia, researchers (Ferraro and Price, 2013) looked at similar social comparisons, and they found that they yielded similar water proportional reductions. The latter study found that these reductions persisted the following two summers – though each successive summer found an attenuated effect of the intervention.

But is this attenuated effect something to worry about? It is worth noting that the intervention in question was just a single report. Sending frequent reports may improve long-run impacts. For instance studies related to household energy consumption find compelling evidence that monthly home electricity reports are more effective at reducing consumption than quarterly reports, and that effects persist with little decay over at least five years.

And, of course, successful interventions could be adapted and tested in follow-up research studies, in order to identify even more effective interventions and ensure their persistence. For example, studies could test whether the addition of practical water-saving tips encourages households to save yet more water. If these interventions were tested and proven to be equally successful in England, they would achieve a substantial proportion of the Environment Agency’s 25-30% reduction target at low cost.

Current Requirements from Industry Regulators to Reduce Consumer Consumption

Ofwat, the water industry regulator, requires water companies to take steps to reduce their customers’ consumption. These efforts now form part of Ofwat’s criteria in judging what prices water companies can charge. In addition, companies have strong financial incentives to reduce consumption through conservation because conservation is significantly cheaper (and far less controversial) than developing additional water supplies or increasing water prices.

It seems water companies, customers, and regulators may all be swimming in the same direction. We just need to stir things up – perhaps with a drop of behavioural insights – to really turn the tide.

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