Guest Column | July 23, 2014

Why Engineers Can't Solve The Water Shortage With Supply-Side Solutions


By Jacob Tompkins, Strategy Director, Conservation Generation

A quick scan of the headlines shows that there is a global increase in floods and droughts. But most strikingly, these hydrological extremes are starting to hit the U.S. with a frightening regularity. The unprecedented drought in California is alarming, but more alarming is the question as to whether it’s a drought or if this is the new climate as some NASA data suggests. Globally, the spatial and temporal changes to rainfall patterns when combined with a growing population mean that by 2035 two-thirds of the world’s population will live in an area of water stress. It is therefore not surprising that this year the U.S. military stated water shortage as a primary threat to global stability.

So what does this mean for the U.S.? Clearly, there will be more floods and droughts and increasing competition for water between farming, power generation, and general public use.  This battle will result in massive collateral damage to the environment. Increased river temperatures, lower river levels, groundwater depletion, and loss of wetlands are inevitable. You don’t need to be an ‘eco-warrior’ to see why this is worrisome— less water in rivers and groundwater means less available for use, higher temperatures mean greater volume extracted to cool power stations, loss of wetlands means higher local temperature anomalies, and lower river flows means less water to dilute sewerage discharges. The aquatic environment is both the source of our water supply and the filter that cleans our water. There is a dangerous downward spiral if we try and meet demand through greater abstraction. Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the United States, is at its lowest level ever and groundwater levels across the Southwest are at unprecedented lows.

Sadly the current situation is the fault of engineers (I can say that because I am a civil engineer!)  For too long we have delivered only supply-side solutions. Consumption rises were no problem—we could dig or dam and drain and pump to find more water. This means that the public takes for granted the fact that they can turn on the faucet and expect wholesome water and flush the toilet and expect someone to deal with whatever they flush. Now we are at the point where there is precious little left to dig or dam or drain or pump, and we are going to have a problem explaining that us engineers don’t have all the answers.

Consumers need to understand that water is not unlimited and that some of the solutions depend on demand-side solutions. This is taking place and there is some great work going on. But if this is the case, why do Californians still use over 150 gallons per day when equally affluent parts of Denmark use less than 25 gallons per day? Why do large numbers of people still leave the tap running when they brush their teeth?

The problem is that after a couple of hundred years of equating excessive water use with civilization and progress, we can’t just suddenly put out a boring leaflet telling people to turn the tap off when they brush their teeth and expect them to listen. It is still more socially acceptable to have a green lawn in the desert rather than a brown one or no lawn at all. There is a lot of work going on to distribute water saving devices and to refit homes; this is an effective route and can save on average around 10 gallons per household per day. But uptake is low and the savings from devices can decay quickly because people think they can use more water because they have efficient devices.  The key is implementing devices and changing behavior— we have to establish a water saving culture alongside the technological fixes.

The problem here is that the messages from engineers and utilities are often boring and preachy.  And even when utilities use engaging commercials they are often stand alone and don’t integrate with the overall program. We have to start using behavioral  psychology and marketing techniques, and ‘edutainment’ and second-generation gamificiation. The three main things that drive reductions in water wastage are fiscal, environmental, and normative. Fiscal means that you need to show people that they can save money by making the link to energy tailoring the savings to a specific household. Environmental means talking about neighborhood parks and streams rather than talking about abstract global climate change. Normative means appealing to people’s need to do whatever else does; talk  about how ‘thousands of people in  the town have already had a water audit.

In the past this interface between customer and utility has been difficult as the points of interaction are limited to an occasional bill.

This is the challenge— centralized management of utilities gives efficiencies but makes the problem distant from the solution, local solutions at a community or household level are the most efficient ways to deliver demand management, but utilities don’t have the capacity to manage millions of individual household water saving projects.

The key is to personalize information and to gather personal data that can be used to tailor personal rewards or to aggregate distributed savings. The advent of ubiquitous computing changes all of this and the solution is at hand, or even in our hands – literally. Smart cell phones and cheap sensor technology mean that detailed two-way data communication with customers is now possible. This enables centralized utilities to deliver tailored solutions at the community level. It means that rather than generic tips we can gather information and reward specific actions that are directly relevant to the audience.

These tailored solutions need to be delivered alongside the development of a water saving culture. Singapore, Zaragoza, and Sydney all combined retrofit and rebate programs with engagement programs. These programs use alternative touch points to communicate—sports, schools, camps, workplaces, and local businesses.  Messages can be delivered to consumers by these third party routes augmenting utility programs and building a water saving culture. But at the same time links can be made between the environmental programs of water utilities, energy utilities, and corporates like P&Gs Future Friendly initiative, this will add value to each of the programs but it also gives the opportunity for cross-funding. Water, waste, energy, and CO2 savings at the household level can result in modest financial savings. If these can be aggregated there is huge untapped value, which can be turned back into savings programs by linking with retailers like Home Depot or plumbing manufacturers like Kohler.

Therefore,  the solution lies at the interface of consumer engagement, utility management, and ICT, combining the use of clever technology and behavior change. My organization, Conservation Generation, has a mission to do just this. We are developing programs that use “edutainment”—education and entertainment together—to engage consumers in a way that engender a water saving culture and thus increase the uptake of rebate schemes and retrofits. Our first program is working with the American Camping Association delivering innovative water and energy saving messages in two trial camps, Blue Star Camps and Camp Judea. We have embedded environmental messaging in camp activities, and fitted water and energy saving devices. We are evaluating these programs both in terms of behavior change and actual changes to metered utility use, with the aim of showing demonstrable savings and also recording the level to which these behaviors are taken back to the home to deliver ongoing domestic savings. At the same time we are developing augmentation programs with two water utilities where we will use behavior change techniques to increase the uptake of retrofit and rebate programs, again these will be evaluated. But further than this we are collating individual water, waste and energy savings, and banking these to cross sell between utilities. This means we can deliver larger more cost effective programs. We are keen to develop this model further with other partners and are talking to retail outlets about eco-loyalty schemes that can be tied to domestic savings.

Image credit: "Splash!," jemasmith© 2011, used under an Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license: