elephant in pool-1

Behavioural solutions for escalating water challenges

According to Michael Spencer, Board member of the Alliance for Water Stewardship and research fellow at Monash Business School, our failure to address the underlying culture surrounding water is the ‘elephant in the room’ in dealing with our global water crises.

Presenting at GWI’s 10th Water Issues Seminar for the year on Monday 4 November at UNSW Sydney, Spencer shared his views on the ways that water industry attitudes, built over many millennia, are limiting progress in addressing water challenges—and how new, behavioural approaches can be better utilised.

He says recent reports have made it abundantly clear that the approaches we are using to deal with escalating water crises are not having nearly enough impact. These largely centre around technical solutions with a regulatory or engineering focus - even ‘innovative’ approaches are of a similar vein.

The High Level Panel on Water and the 2030 Water Resources Group, for example, underlined the message that water is one of the greatest risks to economic progress, poverty eradication and sustainable development—and significant change must be initiated urgently to meet all competing demands for water. However, while behavioural approaches have been talked about, little has been done to include them in the water ‘toolbox’, which is significantly hindering any real progress.

The fixation with controlling water

Spencer noted that dating back millennia, the ability to control water has been seen as a symbol of power. From China’s Yu the Great, who tamed the great floods of the Yellow River Basin in 2200BC, to today’s descriptions of the role that engineers play in the world, the idea of controlling water is prominent and has influenced much of what we see in the water industry here and now. Regulatory and engineering approaches both focus on control – either through policy and legislation or through physical measures such as the building of dams—and both have serious limitations.

Engineering solutions come at a high cost for both the public and private sector and result in competition with other ecosystem services and budget priorities and are prone to ‘Jevons Paradox’, which occurs when increased water use efficiency creates higher demand and greater consumption of water.

“We build dams, we build infrastructure, we encourage industry to locate there, and then we say ‘oh, we’ve got all this industry in the wrong place where there isn’t any water’,” says Spencer.Prof Greg Leslie, GWI Director, with Mr Michael Spencer at UNSW Sydney

“We face all these sorts of problems when we continue to address water without changing the underlying behavior and the patterns of use that are the problem.”

Similarly, Spencer says that regulatory approaches such as Australia’s water markets are often seen as ‘innovative’ but come with their own set of pitfalls. A recent UN report found that while there has been a 38-fold increase in environmental laws since 1972, many of these laws are only partially enforced or not enforced at all.

“Simply having those laws doesn’t change anything—it’s having the will to enforce those laws and police them that is necessary to make a difference,” Spencer noted.

While both regulatory and engineering approaches have an important place in the water ‘toolbox’, Spencer suggests that a shift in the way we think about water is crucial. The key is to apply social and behavioural sciences into how we manage water – particularly the demand side—and the most effective way of doing this is through stronger engagement with water users.

“The problem is that if ‘water people’ such as Government agencies continue to send the message that they will solve water problems with their tools, water users will continue to believe that responsible water management is outside the realm of their responsibility,” Spencer says.

A people-focused response

While the need for behavioural solutions is not new, change has been slow so far. There are many reasons for this, including the fact that different disciplines and professions have their own ways of looking at the world, making it difficult to see holistic solutions.

“We get locked into ways of thinking about water and how we’re going to solve it, and we’ve really got to break out of that cage… Part of the reason we get locked in is simply because we’ve always done it that way,” says Spencer.

“We need to broaden our focus and thinking about water in order to come up with a broader range of solutions.”

Spencer suggests that the solution is to find ways to deepen engagement between water and its end users, and that issues such as morality, obligations to the broader community and obligations to the future should be front of mind.

He drew on his experiences with the Alliance for Water Stewardship (AWS) to highlight the importance of government-business partnerships. In one municipality in China for example, 35 major polluters were encouraged by the Government to work with AWS, who provided training on improving their businesses through water stewardship which then deepened their understanding of the issues affecting their long-term water use.

Ultimately, the program lead to water users, their multinational customers and governments being engaged and supporting the program financially. Significantly, these industry players then took on the role of building education and awareness within their municipality and diffusing information through their network. Government incentives such as one-off payments, tax rebates, reduced compliance or green finance offered in return for water stewardship can all play an important part in building collaborative programs.

Closer to home, Spencer noted industry was already moving down this path through projects including; identifying and engaging water ‘champions’ from companies and local government agencies, encouraging long-lasting behaviour change within the community, engaging schools and young people, creating permanent community awareness of water use and creating generational change in community attitudes.

Spencer says that while we have a lot of elements in play, we just need to push on a lot further to see results.

“Change involves deep-seated attitudes to water and it won’t happen quickly or easily, but through collaboration, understanding market segments and building shared ownership of problems and solutions, there is much to gain from expanding the water toolbox,” he concluded.


Michael's full presentation can be viewed on the GWI YouTube channel

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