It’s time to talk about water
Dr Claire Forbes, Senior Director of Corporate Communications at Ofwat, tells us how the public conversation regarding water needs to change.
For a country famous for talking about the rain, it might seem odd that in the UK we don’t talk much about water. We take it for granted that we can turn on the tap or flush the toilet, use the shower or the washing machine. As consumers, we don’t often think about where our water comes from, or about how much we use.
Rising levels of environmental awareness and concern amongst consumers don’t include water. Recent consumer research by CCW – the voice for water consumers in the UK – concluded that there was low awareness of what climate change means for the work that water companies do. Instead, water shortages and poor quality drinking water ranked towards the bottom of what consumers think are the most important environmental challenges facing Britain today, with just 9% and 6% of respondents citing these issues.
At Ofwat, the regulator for the water sector in England and Wales, we’re conscious of how the public conversation about water needs to change. This year, the value of water has been demonstrated more than ever, with thorough handwashing a prime defence against COVID19. But in the UK that’s not been the only water story. The year began with devastating floods, followed by some of the sunniest, driest weather on record. As the country stayed at home because of the COVID lockdown, water companies found themselves coping with unprecedented demand for water, with peak demand 40% above the norm in some areas.
Two years ago, water officials around the world watched as the prospect of imminent drought in Cape Town, South Africa, led to the launch of the ‘Day Zero’ campaign. Day Zero was the date in April 2018 when taps in the city would run dry if water consumption wasn’t drastically reduced. The countdown to Day Zero campaign included billboards announcing that that showers should be two minutes long and the promotion of other water saving techniques. Its aim was to drive down water consumption, making Cape Town the number one water saving city in the world.
If Cape Town had its Day Zero, the UK is facing the ‘jaws of death’. This phrase, was used last year in a speech by Chief Executive of England’s Environment Agency Sir James Bevan, to illustrate the point at which, unless we take action to change things, we will not have enough water to supply our needs. Unlike Cape Town’s Day Zero, the jaws of death are still some years away and communications and behaviour change campaigns to reduce water usage are essential to keep it that way.
As we look to promote a public conversation about water usage, there’s much we can learn from other countries. Cape Town’s relentless promotion of water saving reduced individual usage to just 50 litres a day, compared with the UK average of about 140 litres per day. In Australia, ongoing communication of water resources, such as that delivered by the Water Corporation in Perth, provides regular updates on rainfall, water use and water levels in dams. This allows everyone to see exactly how much water is available, how much is being used and how the sources of water are changing over time.
In the UK this summer, water companies joined with Waterwise, an NGO focused on reducing water consumption, to deliver one of the first industry-wide communications campaigns. Delivered digitally, ‘Water’s Worth Saving’ reached nearly 20 million consumers in the UK with tips for helping save water. It’s a hard message to land when it’s raining outside, but it’s a message that now needs to be heard all year round.
By Dr Claire Forbes
Dr Claire Forbes is the Senior Director of Corporate Communications at Ofwat and a Visiting Lecturer at Westminster University.