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What are the challenges facing water companies in ensuring a resilient future supply?

The British sense of irony is never more enthusiastically deployed than when attempts are made to explain water shortages.

Yet conserving water in the UK and abroad is vital to provide a sustainable future supply for both people and the natural environment.

The 2016 Global Risk Report by the World Economic Forum predicted that water demand would exceed a sustainable supply by 2030. We are also seeing the impact of high demand for water being abstracted from rivers across the UK.

A WWF report published in June found that 14% of rivers in England have water levels too low for wildlife to be sustained.

Water companies play a pivotal role in encouraging consumers to use less water but they face inherent challenges in trying to limit the amount of water abstracted from the natural environment. Ultimately behaviour drives demand for water, and changing consumer behaviour towards water use is a fundamentally difficult task.

Turning concern into action

It is not that the general public do not care about this issue. Recent Populus research for WWF shows that 85% of the British public think that individuals should do more to reduce water wastage in their home.

However, trying to convert this concern into action is a challenge as water issues are not top of mind for most people.

They are generally unengaged with the water industry, most falling back on hazy recollections of GCSE geography when attempting to explain where we get water from.

Ultimately, if consumers can’t comprehend the idea of a finite supply of water then it will be an uphill struggle to encourage them to use less water. The public currently see access to water as a fundamental human right – one which they are averse to limiting.

Andy Barker, Head of Qualitative Research at Populus has worked on many water industry behaviour change projects. Commenting on the findings he says:

“In our experience, research shows that consumers have many competing priorities in their lives and making changes in routine behaviour (especially in a low engagement category like water) can be hard. But they are keen not to be wasteful and want to save scarce resources if they are (a) made aware that there is a problem in a way that is relevant to them and (b) provided with easy ways of making changes, such as the water saving gadgets offered by water companies.”

The water industry’s response
OFWAT (the economic regulator of the water sector in England in Wales) knows that this passive and disengaged use is a threat to achieving a resilient supply of water.

They want to take the step to view customers not as passive recipients, but as active participants. Ultimately water companies need to inspire their customers to change their behaviour in order to save water.

Consumers want, and need support on this journey to come from above. Our study with WWF found that 8 in 10 wanted the Government to do more to encourage homes and businesses to use less water. Behaviour change should be driven through education and increased engagement of consumers with this issue.

This is exactly what Thames Water have been doing. Andrew Tucker, Water Efficiency & Affordability Manager at Thames Water says:

“We’re currently delivering the largest water efficiency programme in the history of the sector, involving in-home retrofitting of water saving devices and tailored engagement with householders. These activities are complimented by direct communications to customers about local water resources and the benefits of being water efficient at home – all of which are crucial to help raise awareness and broaden the public’s understanding of water, and it’s value.”

Populus is a full service research and insight agency. Our Business and Consumer Insight team unlocks the Critical Knowledge companies need to understand the challenges of ensuring a resilient water supply, as well as the world around us. For more Solutions, call +44 [0]20 7253 9900.


Populus and WWF (April 2017) Rivers on the Edge: Public Opinion Poll. (Populus interviewed 2,003 nationally representative respondents)

WWF (June 2017) Water for Wildlife: Tackling Drought and Unsustainable Abstraction.
OFWAT (March 2017) Tapped In – From passive customer to active participant

Florence Douglas

Florence joined Populus in 2016 and has worked on a range of projects involving ad and brand trackers, event testing, new product development, product trials and usage and attitude testing. She particularly enjoys delivering projects that help clients overcome the challenges presented by changes in the law and new regulations. She holds a degree from the University of Sheffield and an MSt from the University of Oxford, both in Classical Archaeology.

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