As the threat of drought rises in the UK, Claire Hoolohan Research Associate at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, considers how we might change the way society uses water.
- The UK is braced for drought, and though weather is part of drought, so is the amount of water used by people going about their daily activities
- Government and industry need to develop supply-demand systems that encourage less water-intensive lifestyles
- Research found that the social and material aspects of everyday life are so mundane that the opportunities they pose for water efficiency are often overlooked
- Current water management and policy strategy is ill-equipped to deal with ordinary water use – redesigning, re-attuning and re-locating domestic water use are three proposed strategies to fundamentally alter how society uses water
This week, headlines emerged that the UK is braced for drought after a warm and sunny April saw only 41% of average monthly rainfall, and long-range predictions suggest an increased chance of higher than average temperatures in May and June.
Yet, compared to recent ‘weather bombs’, repeated and dramatic flooding and unexpected snowstorms seen in the last 18 months, drought feels a somewhat familiar challenge. The UK is no stranger to drought, yet for a country with a tendency toward the decidedly damp, drought is often incongruous with the everyday experience of UK weather.
Using water is part of everyday life
Though weather is part of drought, much of the challenge in the UK is simply the amount of water that is used day-to-day by people going about their daily activities. The average person uses around 142 litres a day. “Wince inducing” according to the Energy Saving Trust, as the water industry strive to achieve 130 litres a day.
With an air of ambivalence toward water saving and a prevailing confidence in water infrastructure, changing the ways we use water is no easy task. However, increasingly aware of the challenges population growth, urban development and climate change might bring, the water industry is increasingly interested in how change might be brought about.
Research into water use
Partnered with Thames Water, one of the UK’s largest water companies, research at the University of Manchester sought to tackle this challenge. Working with consumers, water companies and policy makers the aim was to unravel how everyday life influences water use, and develop ideas about future supply-demand systems that might support lower levels of demand.
These findings challenge water companies’ current water efficiency activities. But they also provide opportunities, offering insights as to how activities might engage in social and material aspects of demand to bring about less intensive patterns of water use.
They show that visible and tangible representations of normality that people encounter in everyday life convey powerful messages about how water should be used and what it is appropriate to use water for, that are difficult to counter through direct forms of information.
“You might not know how people water their plants, but you see their gardens so you kind of know. And it’s the same on the TV and stuff too.” (Female aged 56)
They also highlight the importance of material things: not just showers, toilets and taps but the objects and materials that shape demand like clothes, hair and garden. These things create ‘needs’ for water. People also described the importance of the layout and design of their homes, which influence the options and possibilities through which these needs might be fulfilled.
“My uniform is a big deal – white overalls. Its fine for office staff, but in the warehouse you just get attacked by dust, so it has to be washed every other day, or they just get manky and horrible.” (Male aged 31)
As well as at home, the limited interaction people have with water outside the home, coupled with an infrastructural heritage that hides our dependence on water in the environment, supports a confidence in supply that remains largely unsettled by uncharacteristically dry weather.
“You just don’t think about it do you. It’s just there. I’d never thought about where it came from, or what happens after you use it.” (Female aged 47)
These social and material aspects of everyday life are so mundane that the opportunities they pose for water efficiency are often overlooked. However, they are constantly changing and understanding how their future forms might support less intensive water use is a promising avenue for water demand management.
Reducing water usage
To address these findings, a series of workshops brought Water Company representatives together to visualise strategies to engage with social and material context of water use to elicit deep changes to the ways in which water is integrated in everyday life. Three umbrella concepts were developed, under which a range of activities might be designed and experimented with, and all imagine radical changes to how society uses water.
Redesign. Re-attune. Re-locate. Three strategies to change how society uses water
Redesign strategically engages in design processes – for example working with the hair and beauty industry to popularise products and styles that encourage less frequent washing. The process entails the identification of problematic material factors, their replacement with water-sensitive alternatives and engaging with social media to enhance their uptake.
Re-attuning addresses the disconnection between water and society which has a historical legacy, but is preserved in contemporary water management and urban planning. Re-attuning is about making visible and material changes to how water in the home connects to water in the environment and potential opportunities lie in decentralised water systems, urban daylighting and river restoration; projects that give presence to water in society.
Relocating challenges the ‘domestic’ in domestic water use, by exploring options for outsourcing. Everybody uses water differently. For some people outsourcing is already common, like using laundrettes and car washes. For other people such services are unimaginable. Increasing the popularity of outsourcing poses opportunities to alter routines and maximises the potential for large-scale water efficiency outside the home. There might be other potential impacts of unlocking routines too. For example could workplace uniform washing lead to changes in how people commute as clothing is one of the principle barriers to cycling? Or does it simply become an additional laundry service, reducing the volume of clothes being washed at home with no change to the frequency?
The challenges the UK face in managing water supply are becoming more serious year-on-year, and similar challenges are faced across the globe (for recent examples look to California, Australia, or Alberta). But current water management and policy strategy is ill-equipped to deal with the complex yet everyday context of water use. Redesigning, re-attuning and re-locating domestic water use are three strategies that might fundamentally alter how society uses water.