How do we reduce household water demand in a water-scarce future?

As temperatures rise and weather patterns become more extreme, water availability is becoming less reliable. Research from The University of Manchester is helping the UK government and water sector create new approaches for understanding current and future water demand — helping us adapt to a water-scarce future.

Climate, cultural and technological changes, as well as global challenges such as the COVID-19 pandemic, all influence the way we use water in our homes — for hygiene, sanitation, cooking and tending to plants and gardens. Challenges for domestic water demand in the UK include peak demands (such as during periods of hot weather, when households water gardens and fill paddling pools), and increases in day-to-day water demand (caused by households increasing the number of showers taken, or wash loads).

Currently, the UK water sector works to understand changes in water demand by applying perspectives from behavioural economics, psychology and nudge theory. However, these approaches don't fully address why certain water usage patterns emerge and persist.

Shaping and inspiring policy

Recognising the need for a new perspective, University of Manchester research, led by Dr Alison Browne, employed social practice theories to study everyday water use through projects funded by the Economic and Social Research Council , Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council , UK Water Industry Research and other industry funding.

With support from colleague Dr Claire Hoolohan and research partners including the University's of Lancaster, Sheffield and Bristol, Dr Browne collaborated with policymakers, businesses and water sector intermediaries to embed evidence from their projects into water management policy, planning and forecasting frameworks, and water demand and water-efficiency programmes.

The work has helped to define the Department of Environment Food and Rural Affairs' (Defra) Action Based Research Programmes in 2014 and Rapid Evidence Reviews in 2019; directly influencing evidence sessions, policy consultations and policy roundtables as part of the 25 Year Environment Programme and Joint Water Evidence Programme by the Environment Agency (EA) and Defra, 2018 to 2020.

The underpinning research has also inspired a ten-year policy research investment by Defra to track the changing practices of water demand in the context of climatic and other socio-cultural changes across England and Wales between 2021 and 2031.

Developing new ways to track, and intervene in, water demand

This approach allows for an in-depth view of the social, cultural and material contexts that shape everyday water use. Part of this work required the team to shift from simply focusing on the water resource itself, to studying the services that the water provides. The team gained invaluable insights and offered up new methods for how we forecast, predict, track and alter the trajectories of domestic water demand.

The team developed a "Change Points Toolkit" designed to support stakeholders in designing interventions that unlock unsustainable practice, and map out intervention and policy pathways. This co-design approach has been taken up by a range of stakeholders who are interested in developing new approaches to address water use including Defra/EA, Anglian Water and the Northumbrian Water Group.

This work is now complemented by a new Innovate UK Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP) project led by Dr Alison Browne and Dr Claire Hoolohan with Artesia Consulting. Started in May 2021, 'Peak Demand' uses social practice theory and social science methods to continue building an understanding of changing practices, overall and peak water demand across the UK.

During the two-year project the team, will work alongside Innovate UK and a project advisory board comprised of EA, Defra, Consumer Council for Water, Waterwise, Royal Horticultural Society, Scottish Water, Severn Trent Water, United Utilities, Knowledge Transfer Network, Northumbrian Water, South West Water, SES Water, and Affinity Water,