Privacy, how we smell and the modern bathroom are all key reasons behind our huge domestic use of water, a leading social scientist has claimed.

At the third and final meeting in the ‘Engineering the future of water’ series, organised by the Engineering the Future alliance, experts from across the water industry looked into behaviour change and demand management.

Social scientist Dr Jan Selby from the University of Sussex focused on the creation of the modern bathroom – a private place in which we spend many hours in our daily lives locked away to make ourselves ‘odour neutral’ – as a huge source of increased water usage. While not proposing to do away with privacy by placing the shower in the kitchen as a means of saving water, Dr Selby stated that designers and engineers have a significant part to play in helping alter people’s approach to water use. He challenged the engineers in the audience to be innovative and imaginative in proposing solutions rather than focusing on changing behaviour through educational campaigns.

Dr Selby also pointed to the supply of, rather than demand for water as the main driver of the way in which it is used. He put forward the ‘paradox’ of domestic water – it is everywhere in the home but never in our minds – and that because water infrastructure is less visible than others, this has an impact on the nature of demand.

Melvyn Kay of UK Irrigation Association spoke about water use in agriculture and how, global food production accounted for 70 per cent of all water use. He pointed out that in UK we ‘import’ over 60% of our water ‘embedded’ in food imports. He raised the moral issue of importing food from extremely dry countries, saying that if we import their water, we are in fact ‘exporting our drought’ to nations that can ill afford it.

A scheme employed by the city of Peterborough to promote public understanding of water use, was discussed by Steve Magenis of Royal Haskoning. In this scheme, data about where the city’s water was sourced and pumped was shared with policy makers and citizens to start an informed conversation on the subject.

Michael Norton MBE, Chair of the Institution of Civil Engineers Water Expert Panel, looked at the subject of ‘virtual water’, defined as the total volume of water consumed in making a product over the entire supply chain. He said that a number of major multinational companies were now studying their global water footprint in order to assess business risks associated with water scarcity. However, there was some way to go at a government level with most nations not understanding the risks associated with their water footprint.

From IBM, Robert Musgrove and Daniel Webb explored the future possibility of a ‘smart’ water infrastructure in the UK, presenting a case study from the USA in which smart meters were installed in homes, allowing residents to ‘visualise’ their true water usage through charts and statistics. They said that technology alone couldn‘t change consumer behaviour, but that exploiting technological trends could ‘activate the customer’ into thinking more about water use.

The event Chair, Dr Jean Venables FREng, said: “This event on behaviour change was a fascinating way to end the series on the future of water, as it really looked into the difficulty of shifting engrained habits and perceptions.

“One thing is clear, the problem of future water security – including flooding and droughts – is not going to go away and we must look across the whole water chain, from abstraction and treatment to use and sewerage, to help address the infrastructure and attitude changes which are needed.”

Presentations to download:

Dr Jean Venables FREng
Opening slides (1.50 MB)

Melvyn Kay, Executive Secretary, UK Irrigation Association
The link between water, agriculture and food (1.54 MB)

Dr Jan Selby, Senior Lecturer in International Relations, School of Global Studies, University of Sussex
How society values water (1.17 MB)

Steve Magenis, Senior Engineer, Royal Haskoning
Planning – where we put the demand (1.96 MB)

Michael Norton MBE, Global Director, Urban Water, Halcrow
The role of virtual water (1.33 MB)

Robert Musgrove, Capital Programmes Lead, IBM; and Daniel Webb, IBM Global Business Services
The role of smart water infrastructure in supporting behaviour change (2.79 MB)

Watch the recording from this event

Download the programme for the event (390.03 KB)

Full information from the previous two water events:

Local water recycling

Water security challenges – is water transfer the answer?

Notes for editors

  1. Engineering the Future

    Engineering the Future is a broad alliance of the engineering institutions and bodies which represent the UK’s 450,000 professional engineers. We provide independent expert advice and promote understanding of the contribution that engineering makes to the economy, society and to the development and delivery of national policy.

    The leadership of Engineering the Future is drawn from the following institutions:

    The Engineering Council; EngineeringUK; The Institution of Chemical Engineers; The Institution of Civil Engineers; The Institution of Engineering and Technology; The Institution of Mechanical Engineers; The Institute of Physics; The Royal Academy of Engineering.

For more information please contact

Ed Holmes on 0207 766 0655