For many years the mismatch between the demand for water and its available supply was ‘solved’ by the industry through engineering or technological solutions, including mega-projects such as dams and desalination plants. The assumption that technological fixes are sufficient as standalone solutions has been challenged in recent times.

At the heart of this change of approach is a new focus on ‘people oriented’ forms of water management. This offers the potential to address water shortages at lower financial and environmental cost. However, while this shift to ‘people oriented’ water management could be viewed as progressive, paradoxically the models used by water companies only see ‘average consumers’. They fail to see the diversity in why people use water, why behaviours change and how these changes relate to the development of water supply systems.

The newly adopted  ‘people oriented’ approaches do not really address the complex nature of what people actually do with water, or how water demand will change now and into the future. There is reluctance within the industry to develop new approaches that might engage with these complexities. By focusing on ‘people’, it is more difficult to understand why particular water using practices emerge or disappear, how to forecast changes over time and locations, and to think of innovative interventions to increase water consumption in ways that are sustainable.

There needs to be more thought and understanding about how and why people use water. We need to analyse the practices in which water is used, the social trends that affect these and how they might change over time. These changes can be unexpected, yet greatly influence water consumption.

For example, people wash themselves and do their laundry in order to fulfil ‘needs’ for cleanliness, freshness and comfort. These washing practices alter according to the technologies and gadgets that are developed, changing habits and routines, and changing social meanings about such activities. These changes can be observed in ‘individual people’, but it is possibly more useful to think about how changes to these practices at a societal level will fundamentally shape water and energy consumption. A lack of understanding of these factors hinders the water industry’s attempts at resource planning and the management of water consumption.

Currently, the water industry sees ‘the water user’ as both rational and irrational. They are seen as irrational in the sense that they are thought not have the skills or information to make rational decisions. Consumers’ decisions are seen to be rationally influenced by an awareness of resource limitations and environmental needs. The water user is currently framed as  being economically focused – they are aware of how much they pay for water use and the energy consumption of devices using water. Water users are also characterised as interested in new technologies and responsive to social trends in the use of technology and the cost of that technology. All these factors are said to influence water demand and lead to water management strategies, interventions and forecasting.

But these approaches fail to get us closer to understanding what people do with water in the home, garden and elsewhere. Water industry planning fails to recognise the connections between different types of uncertainties – such as climate change, social and cultural change, technological change – around future demand. There is uncertainty about whether gardening and household lifestyles will increase demand for water – for example, with more garden watering – or reduce, through increased water recycling and the adoption of sustainable household technologies, cultures, or practices. There is also uncertainty as to whether reductions of demand in moments of crisis can hold, or whether they always bounce back after periods of drought and water scarcity.

We also do not know if the culture of water use will become increasingly resource intensive. In the UK, for example, there is a rise in more than daily washing and showering. This reflects changing social and cultural values about cleanliness.

We must let go of the focus on water and instead focus on the services water provides in everyday lives and how these services could be more sustainably provisioned. This means thinking about what people are doing in their day-to-day lives – in their routines and daily lives of travelling and eating and in looking after others, their selves, their gardens, their homes.  Demographic change is important – water consumption changes in relation to a person’s life stage/course and the life course of those around them – whether these are babies, toddlers, teenagers, commuters, retirees, or the elderly.

Change is also triggered by social conventions, such as expectations of cleanliness, which vary over time. Technology can evolve in unexpected ways, potentially altering demand for water.  And infrastructure matters – where supply changes, demand changes. Most of these factors will be simultaneous.

These reflections show the importance of developing a new approach to understanding the everyday practices that consume water; the need to develop alternative ways to capture, track and potentially model water demand; and how to intervene in ways that recognise the patterns and diversities of everyday lives.

Demand for water changes for these different reasons, involving many different businesses and social forces – not just the water industry. This pushes the discussion of intervention beyond individuals to broader social and commercial interests. It needs to involve consideration of how we clean our clothes and our bodies and how we garden, in order to make these practices more sustainable.

The ‘governing’ of water is not, and cannot be, something that is done solely by those in the water industry. For a truly sustainable future, we need more joined-up thinking about the management of water.

This blog was originally published on the 14th July 2015 on the policy@manchester blogs: . The blog is based on Insights from the everyday: Implications of reframing the governance of water supply and demand from ‘people’ to ‘practice, by A.L. Browne,

Posted February 2015

Managing Water Demand – Dr Alison Browne, UK