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Every Drop Counts: Achieving Greater Water Efficiency (2006)

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Executive summary

Water is a precious and increasingly scarce resource in many parts of the world. The drought of 2004-2006 has raised awareness of the fragility of water resources in parts of the UK and helped push water issues up the political agenda. There is a growing awareness that there are areas where demand for water is close to outstripping supply (Environment Agency, 2001). Yet there is a real need to accommodate a rising population, living in smaller, more numerous households particularly in the parts of the Greater South East where water availability is scarcest. Furthermore, climate change could result in more frequent droughts over the mid to longer term. If we are to manage water resources more sustainably, there needs to be a radical change in how we as a society value, manage and consume water.

As a shared but limited resource, people, businesses and the Government have a collective responsibility to use water wisely and ensure its consumption and production remain within environmental limits. Water companies are expected to balance water supply and demand following the twin-track approach, but the current regulatory approach to water resource planning arguably encourages an ‘either/or’ selection of demand management or supply-side options. The regulatory system currently rewards supply expansion and water company plans tend to be biased towards supply-side measures. Yet there is significant scope for water savings in new and existing homes. Potential water savings in the existing housing stock are estimated to range from 12 to 30 per cent (MTP, 2006 and SDC, 2006).

Much of recent public and media attention has focused on leakage. In fact, most companies are meeting their leakage targets and overall leakage has reduced by around 1400 mega litres (Ml) per day over the course of the last ten years (Ofwat, 2006a). The focus on leakage reduction has overshadowed other key forms of demand management – metering and promoting water saving by customers – which are under- developed.

Although water companies have a duty to promote the efficient use of water by their customers and further water conservation, total expenditure and attributable water savings from companies’ water efficiency activities have declined since 1997. Most companies undertake a minimum level of water efficiency activity, often entailing cheap (as opposed to cost-effective) measures, which deliver small and transient savings. On average, water companies in the Greater South East spent 11.5p and saved 250ml or the equivalent of a mug of water a day per person per year through household water efficiency (excluding supply pipe leakage) activities between 2002 and 2005. This compares to an average spend in England and Wales of 10.5p and savings of 327ml or the equivalent of a can of soda a day per person per year. The current duty for water companies to promote water efficiency and conservation by its customers is not ensuring that companies in water-stressed areas are delivering more water savings at the household level.

It is not just water companies that have a responsibility to deliver water savings. Local authorities and other public bodies also have a duty to take into account water conservation and are well placed to work in partnership with stakeholders to deliver water savings. Local authorities could consider making water conservation a material consideration in Local Development Frameworks, and producing supplementary planning guidance to encourage water-efficient new homes. Central government has a critical role to play in using product and building regulations to prevent the installation of the least efficient products from the market. It could also consider whether all homes should be graded against the forthcoming Code for Sustainable Homes. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is looking at the feasibility of developing a voluntary product information labelling scheme. If it is understood by consumers and adopted by the majority of manufacturers and retailers, the label could be instrumental in influencing purchasing behaviour and transforming the market for water-efficient goods.

However, greater effort is needed to encourage more water-efficient homes. Last year, the Government established a Water Saving Group to work in partnership with the water companies, the Consumer Council for Water, Waterwise and the water regulators (Ofwat and the Environment Agency) to develop options for encouraging households to reduce consumption and use water more efficiently. This report particularly considers two of the most contentious issues the group is considering – options for progressing metering and introducing water efficiency targets.