Water management in the face of droughts

As the threat of drought rises in the UK, Claire Hoolohan, research associate at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change, considers how we might change the way society uses water

At the start of May, headlines emerged that the UK is braced for drought after a warm and sunny April saw only 41 per cent 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.

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 approximately 142 litres a day, according to the Energy Saving Trust, as the water industry strives 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 normal everyday water use and what it is appropriate to use water for. These messages, conveyed in the social and material world around consumers, are difficult to counter through direct forms of information, however refined they might be.

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.

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.

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. Re-design. 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?

Water challenges
Year-on-year, the challenges the UK face in managing water supply are becoming more serious. Furthermore 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 mundane context of everyday water use. Redesigning, re-attuning and re-locating domestic water use are three strategies that might fundamentally alter how society uses water, but work is yet needed to understand how such strategies might by implemented in policy and practice.

This article previously appeared on the Manchester Policy Blog.

This research was conducted by Claire Hoolohan towards a PhD, supported by the Economic and Social Research Council (ES/J500094/1) and Thames Water (CASE partner) and supervised by Dr Alison Browne (Sustainable Consumption Institute) and Prof Alice Larkin (Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research). To read more about this research visit Academia.edu.

Claire is a Research Associate at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change, Manchester. Her research explores the social dimensions of global challenges such as climate change adaptation and mitigation, energy demand and water use.

Further Information: 

Manchester Policy Blog