When the well is dry…

Benjamin Franklin:

When the well is dry, we’ll know the worth of water

Many of us are beginning to realise that water is a finite resource, and one that we need to use sensibly if we are to avoid future shortages.  I don’t just mean temporary shortages like in the long hot summer of 1976 when queues at standpipes in the street became the norm.   I mean that things need to change quickly if we are to avoid far more serious water shortages, the likes of which many of us who moan about the vagaries of the British weather will never have believed possible.

Why is it that in 21C Britain, we haven’t yet managed to secure a resilient future for one of the most basic human resources?  (You’d think if there was a shortage of air we might be more on the case!)  Well, there are several reasons.

  1. Climate change is NOW, a reality and no longer a futuristic concern. Recent increases in drought and flooding have had a huge impact on water that we take from natural sources such as the ground and rivers.
  2. There are increasing standards of environmental protection, and rightly so, since taking water from rivers in particular has a very detrimental impact on local eco systems.
  3. Population growth and increased urbanisation are clearly putting stress on some areas of Britain more than others, but are particularly relevant issues for the South East.

 

Ergo, we need to change how Britain consumes water. And quickly!

So, whose responsibility is it to tackle this urgent problem?  As ever with complex issues, there are many bodies who need to act in a collaborative and joined up manner.  The government clearly has a key role to play, as do water providers, the water industry regulator, heavy industry, and yes so do we all – the everyday ordinary person.

Part of the solution is through more efficient water devices and technology (especially in new build homes), as well as infrastructure improvements to reduce leakage.  It is also about educating the customers of tomorrow through schools by making the water cycle more prominent in the curriculum.  But all this takes time, and we are running out of time.

It therefore falls to us as consumers to act now by changing our water behaviours.  We need to do things differently, and water providers need to give us the motivation and inspiration to do so.  Of course, it is not realistic to expect everyone to change their behaviours, but one thing is clear from our research and that is that whilst customers acknowledge they have a role to play in having a more secure water future, they expect their water providers to lead the way.

It is in this context and based on our extensive work in the water industry in the last couple of years, that we think one of the most pressing challenges for water providers is around how they work with their customers to effect behaviour change.  And from our research we have developed a simple framework as a lens through which providers can focus their communications development for this very customer-centric challenge.  It goes like this:

engage | explain | assist

engage

Unfortunately water providers are starting from a position of very little ‘relationship’ with their customers, so this is all about building that dialogue by keeping in touch, keeping people informed (especially during extreme weather), and running campaigns to draw our attention to water and keep it more top of mind for all of us.  ‘Your water your life’ from Scottish Water is one such recent example.

explain

Once providers have this open dialogue channel with their customers, they are in a much better position to be able to explain WHY it is important that we need to act now, helping people to understand the broader water impact.  If providers can get this explanation piece right by giving customers a better understanding of the ‘why’, then this will surely make them more receptive to the ‘how’ which follows.

assist

This is all about ‘HOW’ providers can help customers to change their behaviours.  Initiatives such as Southern Water’s Target 100 campaign that aims to reduce average domestic water consumption across the region to 100 litres or less per person per day, or via smart meters to enhance our understanding of how we consume water.   We have witnessed first-hand in our longitudinal research how people are often more willing to reduce consumption than we give them credit for when given a nudge (this can be anything from giving them the facts to incentivising positive behaviours), so providers must capitalise on this latent desire.  But it’s important to be careful about not jumping straight to ‘HOW’ people could cut down, without first being clear about the vital reasons ‘WHY’ as this risks coming across as ‘preachy’ on the part of water providers.

From both a marcomms and an operational perspective, I recognise that these are not small challenges and I am certainly not saying there are quick or easy solutions to achieving mass behaviour change.  Not least because water and utilities in general is such a low engagement category.  But it is so important that water providers seize the moment and take the lead on this growing crisis, or we will find ourselves back at those standpipes and facing restrictions the like of which we have seen in Cape Town in recent years where a vast city has quite literally run dry.

Benjamin Franklin wasn’t wrong when he said ‘when the well is dry, we’ll know the worth of water’.   If you don’t want that well to run dry and you want to act now (and you probably should), in the link below you’ll find a few quick things you can change immediately about how you consume and could save on water.

Read more about how to save water here.

Ollie