Managing Director of Waterwise, Professor Jacob Tompkins OBE writes a guest blog for GAP about water efficiency and behaviour change 


Water is key to everyone’s life. From daily bathing rituals to making a nice cup of tea, we constantly interact with it. Water can influence the choice of our holiday destinations (albeit sometimes frozen) and it has shaped the geography of the countryside and the towns in which we live. Our bodies are mostly made of it and without it we wouldn't live very long. Water truly is life.

So why do we waste it and pollute it? Why do some people still leave the tap running when they brush their teeth and why do others treat the toilet as a dustbin?

Action and responsibility

It’s partly because we have become disengaged from water. People often don’t know where their water comes from or where their local river is. Water companies have often kept the public at arm’s length and told them to leave it to the experts, because the companies can meet demand and fulfil our needs. Meanwhile, unhelpful items like flushable wipes have been marketed to the public. We haven’t had to consider the role we play as consumers, or change our behaviour. We have been told that our actions don’t matter and it seems that responsibility has been trumped by the myth of choice.

This is changing. Utility companies have realised that problems like fat blockages in sewers, and balancing water supply and demand require an understanding that people are part of the solution. And at the same time, people are starting to take an interest in water, from the issues of flooding to the ownership of water companies, people are starting to ask questions and re-engage with water efficiency.

Awakening interest

This coincidence of awakening public interest and the complexity of the challenges faced by the water sector means that the industry is starting to look at the use of engagement and behavioural techniques.

Giving people a better understanding of water issues and enabling them to engage can provide large-scale solutions. This social infrastructure approach can be used to augment or replace traditional hard infrastructure. Projects like Global Action Plan’s Water Explorer schools programme enable young people to engage and understand water issues which then drives pro-environmental behaviour.

Mass programmes like Singapore’s ABC initiative can effectively manage water assets in conjunction with communities, and the use of social media and phone apps by companies like Advizzo can engage, motivate and reward customers to changing behaviours.

These types of approaches have been used in other sectors for a long time. But concepts of behaviour change, gamification and mass engagement are still fairly untested in the water sector. Hopefully this is set to change.

Recent Waterwise research with King’s College London shows that water companies are slow to adopt behavioural techniques because of a lack of knowledge and concerns over evaluation techniques. Therefore we are helping to set up a Water and Social Science Network and will be producing a how-to guide showing how social science techniques can be used in the water sector.

We believe that with grassroots community support from companies, and an appetite to trial new approaches, a lot can be done to change behaviour and increase engagement in water efficiency.

Waterwise was founded in 2005 and has become the leading authority on water efficiency in the UK and Europe. It is an independent, not for profit organisation that receives funding from the UK water industry, sponsorship and research projects.