Emissions related to domestic water use contribute 5-6% of total UK greenhouse gas emissions. Reducing emissions from domestic water use is necessary for the UK to meet its ambitious target of achieving net zero emissions by 2050. However, current policy instruments to reduce water-related emissions remain limited in scope. In this blog, Dr Claire Hoololan argues that reducing domestic water demand requires policy and strategy that is broader in scope and deeper in ambition.

High levels of water use are engrained in modern society, having become entrenched in everyday practices and locked in by social and infrastructural conditions. Yet, it is not beyond imagination that the outcomes achieved with water in domestic spaces – cleanliness, freshness, comfort, and care – could be decoupled from water (and energy) demand. Such a decoupling would valuably contribute to adapting to water scarcity and mitigating climate change.

The current focus on water consumption

Policy and emissions strategy, in the water industry and beyond, overlook the role that everyday practices could play in reducing domestic hot water use and mitigating climate change. For instance, though the Climate Change Committee’s Sixth Carbon Budget includes measures such as installing low-flow showerheads and heat pumps to reduce domestic water use, and Water UK’s Net Zero 2030 Route Map recommends water labelling, these measures fail to fundamentally affect the ways that water is used. Though these strategies may deliver some reductions in domestic hot water use, we must also reconfigure how, when and why water is used.

Rethinking resource use and water practices

Reimagining alternative futures of water use highlights the need for policy and strategy that is broader in scope and deeper in ambition. Appropriate action to reduce emissions from water demand should be incorporated throughout the UK’s climate change mitigation strategy. To introduce measures that target water-intensive use, policymakers must first recognise how diverse people live and use resources differently in their homes. This involves moving beyond a focus on average water use – which offers a simple yet incomplete picture of water consumption in the UK – to study the factors underlying high and low domestic water use.

For example, though a daily shower is normal for a large proportion of the population, in some houses multiple showers a day or many baths a week is more usual, resulting in much higher than average water use. In other cases, showering outside the home, or water-less ways of washing contribute to lower than average domestic water use. Mundane differences in everyday practices can result in large variations in water use. In a sample of properties, Northumbrian Water recently found that though average water use (per person) was 148 litres per day, 50% of the population use less than 118.3 litres per day and the top 5% use in excess of 290 litres per day.

Recognising variations in the timing, duration, location and nature of water use helps to identify avenues for intervention. Moreover, these diverse domestic practices reveal the various ways that water use intersect with differentiated work, leisure and care routines, cultural practices, and the built environment, helping to extend the scope of intervention beyond individual behaviour change to systemic developments that shape everyday water use.

Furthermore, more information on ownership (including the spatial and temporal dimensions) and the use of appliances should also be considered while designing policy interventions to reduce resource use. Since water constitutes an indispensable part of domestic life, understanding the complex and interconnected ways in which water is embedded in daily routines is important to reduce domestic hot water use beyond measures targeting improvements in the technical efficiency of appliances. Thus, there is a need for research on understanding and working towards different possibilities of intervention in water demand.

Shifting societal and cultural meanings of water

Building more sustainable and less water-intensive lifestyles requires a fundamental rethinking of everyday practices, particularly in regard to comfort, hygiene and luxury cultures. Visions of future cleanliness and leisure often assume that these practices will remain water-intensive. Yet, since water use intersects with lifestyles and the built environment, everyday water use changes with developments in social, cultural and material changes in society.

Realising ambitious visions about different ways of living which detach comfort, cleanliness, leisure and luxury from water and energy use remains important yet challenging. For instance, water companies that have communicated the impact of lifestyle choices (for example, by discussing showering and shaving of legs), have received public and media criticism in the past. There is a need for a much wider coalition of actors – such as interior designers, appliance manufacturers and retailers – to engage in the transition towards less intensive water use.

Adopting an interdisciplinary and holistic approach to address water challenges

Reimagining water infrastructures is necessary to decouple emissions from water and water use. Importantly, how we build and retrofit our homes is vital in turning ambitious visions into reality. We need to be designing homes that enable different forms of everyday activity and support lifestyles that result in low-intensive patterns of energy and water use. This is an imaginative exercise which demands that we question how we will achieve the services that energy and water provide in ways that decouple everyday action from high rates of water and energy use, even in the very near future. In this regard, the role of social scientists will be especially important to study and reimagine ways in which shifts in social and cultural developments can accelerate the transition to decarbonised futures.

Current and future water challenges can be addressed through an interdisciplinary approach that brings together academics, local and national governments, and industry actors. Additionally, creative collaborations between new and unusual organisations from the health and beauty industry, the fitness industry, employers (in setting workplace dress codes and offering facilities for employees), home, kitchen, bathroom and interior designers, appliance designers and manufacturers, are needed if trends in water demand are to be changed. Systemic sustainability interventions facilitated through such collaborative efforts will be central to reducing water demand use rather than simply creating targets for low-intensive water use.


This article was originally published in Building Utopia, a collection of thought leadership pieces and expert analysis on urban development, published by Policy@Manchester.

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