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Promoting Behavioural Change in Household Water Consumption (2007)

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This literature review prepared for Smart Water summarises the principal theories relating to behavioural change relevant to water conservation in residential situations. It considers the application of the theories to actual behaviour change relating to conservation patterns and discusses examples from studies relating to the environmental sector. The policies and targets set by the government provide a base on which to examine techniques and tools available to encourage residential water users to conserve water and change their behavioural patterns. Specific studies on water saving in residential situations in Australia and elsewhere help to determine effective means of influencing conservation of water in Victoria.


Savings in residential water consumption have played a major part in campaigns encouraging consumers to take an active role in conservation of natural resources and support environmental sustainability. This has been particularly important in the management of water shortages during the recent drought conditions in Australia. The Victorian Government (2004a) developed the White Paper which sets out a series of actions designed to maintain reduced levels of water consumption, once the drought ends. The actions are based on established methods of reducing residential water consumption and include: pricing, permanent water saving measures (restrictions), education and awareness, water efficiency labelling for appliances and rebate schemes.

The use of established methods of reducing residential water consumption has the potential to achieve significant water savings. The most effective measures include

x The use of water efficient appliances, such as dual flush toilets, water efficient washing machines and low volume shower roses.

x Behavioural change such as reducing shower times and changing gardening practices (Victorian Government, 2004a).

Both the use of water efficient appliances and the adoption of water efficient behaviours depend on encouraging consumers to make voluntary choices within a broader facilitating environment of appropriate policy and pricing signals; infrastructure; information and awareness raising.

A Department of Sustainability and Environment report (2005) found that consumers’ behaviour and attitudes towards water conservation depends on their perception of water and its use. The report cited Victorian Water Industry Association research which provided some valuable insights into the community’s perception of water. One study found that the majority of people surveyed (65 %) either valued water highly as important to all aspects of their life or for its ecological function and indicated a concern for how much water is used and how much is being taken from the environment. However, a significant proportion of the group (25%) regard water as purely a consumer item or service which should be available at all times with no limitations to its use. Furthermore, a third group (12%) do not see water as being significant in any way to their lives.

In Victoria, the agricultural industry is the largest consumer of water, accounting for more than 50% of the State’s total water consumption. Household use of water makes up just under 7% (Department of Sustainability and Environment, 2005). In metropolitan Melbourne, residential water use makes up 59% of water used. Of that amount, 80% is used indoors (Victorian government, 2004c). The bathroom is the second largest water use area in the home, with high-flow fittings, such as older showerheads, vanity taps and single-flush toilets utilising large volumes of water during operation (Department of Sustainability and Environment, 2005). The majority of water users underestimate their water consumption (Department of Environment, Sports and Territories, 1996), which suggests that greater water savings can be achieved in residential situations.

Efforts to reduce residential water consumption are generally based around information campaigns designed to encourage voluntary water conservation either by the alteration of behaviour or the adoption of alternative appliances with greater water-using efficiency (Syme et al., 2000). This means that there is a need to understand the nature of consumer responses to low-water use appliances and the effect on use. Achieving environmental goals through behaviour change presents a difficult communication challenge, as the goals are often based on complex or uncertain science and require long term collective action. The balance between individual and collective benefits is also complicated. Conservation efforts may not benefit the individual directly, for example, except by the generation of a general feel-good factor. The environment is a collective good. People recognise this and may be reluctant to change their behaviour unless they think that others will do the same. (Collins et al., 2003).