Water Grand Challenges: a social science perspective on water efficiency

Posted: 06.06.2019

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Water Grand Challenges: a social science perspective on water efficiency


In response to the invitation to present at the Water Grand Challenges Workshop organised by Defra and The Environment Agency 6th June 2019, The Abbey Centre, Westminster, London.


Emma Westling and Liz Sharp

The Department of Urban Studies and Planning

University of Sheffield



Today Defra and the Environment Agency are inviting academics, government researchers and policy makers to identify future challenges for water, how research can best inform long-term plans and the evidence required to deliver policy change for environmental improvements. The aim of the workshop is to support policy makers in focusing on long term challenges to the water environment. The workshop addresses four thematic areas: Theme 1 Our changing water environment, Theme 2 Water and agriculture, Theme 3 Water efficiency and Theme 4 Interventions and management.

We have been invited to speak about the grand challenges of water as part of Theme 3 Water efficiency. The purpose of this blog post is to share our contributions to the workshop.

We start by identifying two important contextual factors. We then present three challenges for water efficiency. The challenges provide the context for how we have addressed and provided evidence relating to specific questions about water efficiency provided by the workshop organisers. After addressing these questions, we offer some routes forward and associated research. In so doing, our discussions inevitably overlap with the workshop’s other themes.

The first contextual factor concerns the scope of ‘water efficiency’.  Defra’s questions about water efficiency focused on how reductions in user demand for potable water can be realised.  We were concerned that this rather narrow focus loses recognition of the water system’s interconnected and systemic nature. Following consultation with the organisers, we are pushing our discussion of water efficiency towards a broader consideration of the effectiveness of the whole urban water system. With this perspective concern about the efficiency of water use is complemented by a focus on water quality and quantity in the whole water environment and how they interrelate.

The second contextual factor concerns how we understand this ‘whole water system’.   In our perspective, the water system has both physical components, like pipes and shower heads, and social components, like water companies and people using the water.  These social components have always been important parts of water systems, but calls for partnership working and public engagement means that the social components have become increasingly visible.  As we discuss below, this recognition of water as a socio-technical system raises important questions about how its governance is best organised.


Key challenges facing water and its governance

Underpinned by the ideas that 1) the effectiveness of the whole water system should be considered and, 2) a new form of governance understanding water as a socio-technical system is required, we introduce three key interrelated challenges facing water and its governance.

First, there is a challenge of co-ordination. In this new water governance, there is a need for a new institutional design that enables organisations to work together. Relationships between the traditionally separated ‘clean’ (water supply) and ‘dirty’ (water drainage and sewerage) parts of the urban water cycle are both physical and perceptual. An illustration of the physical links is provided by the expectation long advocated by Australian academics[1] that an effective physical water infrastructure will include multiple fit-for-purpose water sources; water from roofs, for example, may irrigate urban street trees, hence delivering efficiencies for the drainage and water supply infrastructures. But perceptions are crucial too.  In our ‘mobilisation’ research as part of the TWENTY65 project, we map the nature, extent and effectiveness of public engagement activities seeking to address water challenges. Water efficiency campaigns are frequently represented, but mainly focus on reducing potable water consumption without considering how water saving connects to other water related issues[2]. By looking at water efficiency initiatives across the whole water cycle we can enable:

  • Learning across other areas of the water cycle;
  • Increased potential for delivering multiple efficiencies beyond water saving
  • A more informed understating of the unintended consequences of different efficiencies and how they interrelate

We know from our and others research that even the clean and dirty in the same organisation do not learn from each other.  We also know that water investments are not always developed in ways which maximise their benefits to the locality. The new governance means that we need to co-ordinate and being explicit about who is responsible for what including water organisations but also members of the public.

Second, there is a challenge of how to engage people in water governance. Water infrastructures have a long history of being mostly ‘hidden’ from view and water services have been taken care of by technical experts alone. It could be argued that this ‘system’ has been almost too effective in providing a good service because it has left people not having to engage with the management of water. This becomes problematic when people need to change how they use and interact with water in response to for example water stress. In an Australian context, Zoe Sofoulis[3] explains this dilemma through referring to such system as ‘Big Water” where technical experts have taken on the responsibility for most water management activities. The only, tasks left for people to do, is to use water and pay the bills. However, in a water crisis, people have then been blamed for wasting water and for not understanding the details of the serious situation. Water users have been expected to make appropriate sacrifices, particularly in avoiding watering their gardens, a vital aspect of many Australian homes. Similar expectations about individual responsibilities exists in the UK and are predominantly introduced as ‘behaviour change’, a popular approach in environmental policy, nevertheless argued to be inappropriately individualistic[4]. Analytical frameworks based on ‘behaviour change’ rely on the assumption that behaviours are ‘chosen’ by individuals, rather than limited and influenced by its physical, institutional and normative context[5] as part of the socio-technical system. A focus on individual behaviours and how they can be altered ignores wider questions about the context of the activity. A central question to ask is whether it is fair to ask people to take on responsibilities for water management at least without recognising that the physical and organisational system itself influences how users engage with water in their everyday lives. Also, changing behaviours, particularly over the long term has been proven difficult, so a challenge for water management, is to promote alternative models which allows for different types of engagement or interventions without necessarily intending to alter perceived inappropriate behaviours. In our ‘mobilisation’ research as part of the TWENTY65 project, we systematically review how water organisations engage with people in various way to encourage change in order to address water related issues.

Third, the water sector is faced with a challenge around knowledge and expertise in relation to shifting expectations of what water governance should deliver. Historically, the water sector has addressed problems through technical innovation with little involvement from people. Due to issues related to climate change, population growth and changes in consumption patterns, such approach have become recognised as too expensive and sometimes environmentally damaging to maintain[6]. In this respect the social aspects of the socio-technical system of water management are beginning to be recognised.  New forms of water management increasingly expect people to get involved in delivering some forms of water services or help in achieving a more sustainable system. The economic regulator Ofwat has for example stated that water users should not be seen as ‘passive customers’ but as ‘active participants’ in water management activities[7]. We ask publics to register for flood warnings and prepare their home for flood resilience, to save water in a drought, and to report pollution incidents in their local river. Hence, such expected involvement could range from communities informing where flooding has occurred to individual households reducing their water consumption.

Shifting from a technical expert-led approach to water management towards one that involves people, needs new forms of knowledge and expertise. We would argue that the shifts towards a more collaborative approach to water management in the UK, has not been followed by an appropriate review of what knowledge and expertise that is required to fully support such shift. Although social concerns have become more central to water management, water policies and regulation are not fully underpinned by social science which may limit a more collaborative and people centred water governance to achieve its full potential.

The key challenges summarised above guide our responses and associated evidence to the (selected) specific questions identified by the workshop organisers. We address these questions in turn below before we identify recommendations for routes forward and identify research and evidence needed to address the grand challenges for water.


What are the unintended consequences of increasing water efficiency?

Promoting the efficiency of household water use in isolation from other water related issues may perpetuate the understanding that water resources are disconnected from the rest of the water cycle. If people engage in successful water use efficiency campaigns, other problems might be neglected. However, if water shortage related issues were communicated alongside other issues such as potable water quality and sewer flooding, particularly in terms of how they interrelate, these campaigns have the potential to deliver much wider benefits.

An important example of this concerns the conflict between drinking water quality and water efficiency. In her research, Vanessa Speight[1], highlights how stationary water in household pipes increases dissolved lead concentrations, posing a danger to all but particularly creating a risk to brain development in children. To avoid lead contamination, it is recommended to run the water for 1-2 minutes before consuming it, particularly after water has stood still for a period, for example, overnight. Speight argues that these issues need to be highlighted alongside water efficiency promotion, or the sector could inadvertently endanger the population. More broadly there is a question over whether the sector can explore and address the legacy of household lead supply pipes.

A further unintended consequence of water efficiency relates to water flows in sewers.   Success in taking rainwater out of sewers combined with a much reduced flow of grey water has the potential to cause problems in terms of sewer flows.


How will people respond to water shortages?

The response to water shortage will depend on people’s existing priorities and understanding about roles and responsibilities, their perception of its severity, alongside their response to communications.

Research from Sefton[2]in 2008 emphasised how people understand water within a wider context of their identity and their social concerns, like a lack of trust in authority. As an underlying framework for understanding people’s responses to water organisations, there is no reason to think these everyday factors have changed in the last decade

In the worst case examples, contemporary water efficiency communications are highly unlikely to lead to water saving for a number of reasons. First, as Zoe Sofoulis[3]has argued, these communications can be seen as blaming. When a system that had previously offered continuous, cheap and seemingly infinite water is suddenly presented as in crises, with demands for changes in individual behaviour, it is not surprising that some people erroneously feel like they are being told that the problems are their fault. Second, poor quality water efficiency communications stress the potential for household financial savings, even though these are well known to be small and not very motivating[4].  In contrast, there is evidence that reference to locally valued water environments could be highly motivating. Third, such communications lack reference to how organisations are also taking actions to save water.  Yet, it is clear that people are much happier about taking action if they are contributing to a collective effort.

There is also a need to review the institutional processes supporting water efficiency:

  • At present, the incentive system treats water restrictions as failure by water organisations[5]. This is an unhelpful reference to the idea of a passive user whose needs must be completely met by the water providers.  Water restrictions need to be reframed as part of the communicative armoury of sensible responses to a situation of water shortage. 
  • At present water companies lead water efficiency communications. The strength of this arrangement is that water companies have genuine links to the current state of water resources and existing relationships with their customers.  The issues include the limited level of trust that such organisations engender, the paucity of appropriately skilled staff, the lack fit between perceived communities and water company areas, and the complexities of communicating in the context of separate water, drainage and sewerage operations.
  • More broadly, in order for water efficiency communications to be effective there is a need for the water system to be better understood by the public. This points to a wider need for some shared efforts to examine which aspects of the water cycle are important to building public efficacy around water saving, and to find ways in which to support public conversations and learning on these topics.
  • A further set of issues relate to the complexities of metering and metered charging.The unthinking application of engineering thinking to metered charging has created public perceptions of being ‘picked on’ in the past[6], which points to the need for clear ethical guidelines about whether and when it is appropriate to apply charging ‘experiments’. More broadly, many advantages of metered charging might be enjoyed without the disbenefits to vulnerable customers, if metering were to be applied without associated charging.
  • Finally, there are questions about how learning is achieved. Mobilising publics to take action in relation to water efficiency is not usually perceived as a scientific process worthy of careful evaluation, monitoring and sharing. Indeed, the incentive structure works against sharing good practice.  Institutional changes are needed in order that action on


What is Government’s role in increasing water efficiency and attempting to reduce water use?

We would argue that the Government has an important role in working in providing the institutional environment to enable collective water governance. Such an institutional environment would benefit water efficiency as well as other aspects of the water environment.  There are three specific aspects of the institutional environmental which we would like to emphasise.

First, there is a need for government to examine how its structures can support the delivery of co-benefits across and beyond the water cycle.  Our MOCA project has recently received research funding from UKRI’s Strategic Resilience fund (LINK) to investigate the potential for rainwater harvesting to combine flood risk, water supply and community benefits to flood-vulnerable Hull.  If we demonstrate that this can work, rolling the project out will mean bridging the current funding streams between flood risk and water supply.  The challenges of achieving such combined funding maintains a myopic approach to water.

Second, government needs to ensure leadership in water related communications.   The example of WRAP in the waste sector demonstrates how one organisation can exercise leadership in a complex context of widely distributed responsibilities, investigating, designing and supporting communications and policy on a complex topic in which the public has a strong interest.  Perhaps funded from a combined ‘tax’ on the water companies, such a body could have a key communication role and would then work closely with water companies, local authorities and other organisations in addressing more localised issues.

Third, water companies are currently faced with an absurd situation in which they must define vulnerability and identify economically vulnerable customers in their areas to whom they must offer supported tariffs.  As work by our PhD Student Fiona Calder has emphasised, water companies have neither the skills nor the data to make effective judgements about economic vulnerability. Governments need to take leadership in deciding who is eligible for reduced tariffs. 


Recommendations for routes forward and future research needs

In this section, we provide recommendations for routes forward and identify research needed in order to deliver the grand challenges for water as part of the 25 Year Environment Plan.

We have identified four key actions which would support the further development of water efficiency activity:

  1. A shift to view water efficiency as part of the effective management of the whole water system for people and the environment.

The concept of water efficiency – the promotion of efficient ways of using water – is useful, but should not be isolated from the wider concern about the effective management of the whole water cycle. The aim of managing the water system is to maintain good lives and a good environment.


  1. The development of a new water action programme, modelled on WRAP, to lead cooperation, coordinate communications and to convey national messages about water issues.

In addition to the need for better co-ordination of water efficiency and other water cycle functions, a national authority could be introduced to work alongside water companies to develop and deliver nationwide messages and community-based water campaigns. In the first instance, WRAP may offer a good model for the types of activities that such an organisation would undertake. The role of the organisation should not be confined to water efficiency.


  1. An accelerated shift is needed to draw on more diverse water expertise within water organisations

Because the socio-technical nature of water management is increasingly recognised, the responsibilities of water companies and other water organisations have become much more diverse to incorporate working in partnership, and working with the public. In response to these changes, some organisations already taking on a more diverse workforce. But this shift needs to accelerate, and alongside this it is crucial that there is a shift in the understanding of research, innovation and development.  Social innovation needs to be recognised as worthy of research attention and learning. Investments are therefore needed to embed and share learning from social innovation.


  1. New institutional structures and funding streams are needed to support partnerships between water companies, local authorities and local NGOs and to enable the realisation of local co-benefits from water investment.

Water companies need to work with other local organisations to identify whether and how local water issues and other local concerns can be tackled together, enabling water-related investments to deliver wider benefits to local areas.  Funding streams need to be restructured to support such co-ordinated action. 

In terms of areas where more research and evidence is needed, we have identified four key questions:

  • What roles, responsibilities and funding are appropriate for a water action programme?
  • How can funding streams be designed to support local co-benefits?
  • How can we effectively engage with people beyond behavior change?
  • Review of what knowledge and skills are needed to support the new governance underpinned by water as socio-technical


Citation Format: Westling, E.L and Sharp, L. (2019). Water Grand Challenges: a social science perspective.Presentation delivered on 6thJune 2019 to Defra/EA Water Grand Challenges Workshop, The Abbey Centre, Westminster, London, UK.


[1]Speight, V. (2018) Sustainable water systems of the future: how to ensure public health protection? Perspectives in Public Health l September 2018 Vol 138 No 5

[2]Sefton C 2008, Public engagement with sustainable water management, Unpublished PhD Thesis, University of Bradford

[3]Sofoulis 2005, op cit

[4]Manouseli et al., (2018). Domestic Water Demand During Droughts in Temperate Climates: Synthesising Evidence for an Integrated Framework Water Resource Management, 32:433–447

Orr, P., Papadopoulou, L., & Twigger-Ross, C. (2018). Water efficiency and behaviour change rapid evidence assessment (REA). [Joint Water Evidence Programme, final report WT1562, project 8]. Crown, Defra, London. Available from:

[5]Knamiller CA and Sharp L, 2009, Issues of trust, fairness and efficacy: a qualitative study of information provision for newly metered households in England, Water Science and Technology: Water Supply, 9: 323–31

[6]Knamiller and Sharp, 2008, op cit