22 Apr 2019
Topics Water
Water. It covers nearly three-quarters of the Earth’s surface. It falls from the sky as rain, or snow. It seems like one of the most renewable of Earth’s resources, and while we may never run out of water per se, fresh drinking water is an entirely different concern. Only 3% of the Earth’s water is fresh, so it’s no surprise that we’re already facing a water crisis.

Global demand for fresh water will exceed supply by 40% in 2030, reports the United Nations, thanks to climate change, population growth, and human action.

Learning from Cape Town

We are already seeing places, major cities even, being hit by water shortages. Cape Town was given a very real scare in 2018 when it almost saw Day Zero — the day that it runs out of water — several times. With an El Nino-triggered drought and lack of good rains, taps had begun to run dry. It didn’t help that prior to the scares, the people were not conserving water as they should.

Today, Capetonians continue to carefully abide by their strict water limit of 50 litres of water per person per day. That’s about the amount of freshwater that goes down in three or four flushes for an older toilet system. But Day Zero has only been postponed. It is still lurking on the horizon as the city battles its third year of drought.

Cape Town is not alone when it comes to water scarcity issues, which compromises physical water scarcity - the inadequate freshwater supply due to increasing demand and use, and economic water scarcity - the poor management of sufficient available water resources.

Like Cape Town, more cities will be threatened by both in due time, especially in cities that are seeing rapid urbanisation and a consequent spike in domestic usage of water, says Robert Mcdonald, a scientist at US-based environmental organisation The Nature Conservancy. And water-scarce Asia is already home to 53 percent of the world's urban population, and growing by 900,000 people every week.

How do we prevent a second Cape Town?

We might not be able to control the weather or stop climate change anytime soon, but how we manage our water resources is definitely within our control. It all begins with water conservation at the household level.

water conservation article


Governments have typically imposed regulations to reduce household water usage and discourage wastage. Singapore, for example, introduced a Water Conservation Tax in 1991, and significantly revised its water price in 1997. Together with conservation efforts, the country has steadily reduced its per capita consumption of water daily from 170 litres in 1997 to 143 litres in 2017. It aims to further reduce this to 130 litres by 2030.

Recently, Malaysia too has taken steps to prioritise water conservation. The National Water Services Commission drafted a law in early 2019 to make labelling and the use of water-efficient devices mandatory. According to the agency, Malaysians used an average of 201 litres of water per day in 2017, but with the new law, the country could see a significant reduction in water usage — some 30% to 50% per month.

But should all efforts stem from regulations imposed by governments?

Swiss researchers have experimented with smart devices that give users real-time feedback on how well they were conserving water during their showers, and what they found was interesting. Showing users exactly how much water they were using to shower, and how well water consumption goals are being met, influenced them to reduce their water usage by 22 percent.

A similar experiment was conducted in Singapore as well, and water consumption was reduced by 10 percent on average per shower, saving two litres of water per person daily.

“With the right motivation, campaigns can work just as well as regulations,” says Leong Ching, Co-Director, Institute of Water Policy and Assistant Professor, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

“Rules do not make people behave a certain way. Laws alone do not organise the society. And that’s why the incentives you choose to encourage the public to do something is crucial,” she says.

Her recent study on using different incentives to motivate people to conserve household water usage revealed very interesting and optimistic results.

Driving water conservation: money or morals?

To determine the various incentives which drive household water conservation, Dr Leong led a randomised control trial in which 1,000 Singaporean households were placed in five different groups and their water meter readings were recorded over a period of four weeks.

The groups received the following:
  • Control group: No information or feedback about their water usage.
  • Treatment group 1: Normative incentive - A campaign message to “Use water wisely. Every society shares a responsibility to promote sustainable use of water. The future is in our hands.”
  • Treatment group 2: Normative incentive - Feedback about their own water consumption, a benchmark for “efficient” usage, and explicit identification of whether they were efficient or not.
  • Treatment group 3: Economic incentive - Feedback similar to group 2, and an additional instruction that “efficient” households would win one S$10 grocery voucher as a prize.
  • Treatment group 4: Economic incentive - Feedback similar to group 2, and an opportunity to win S$200 in a lucky draw for “efficient” households.

The study aimed to find out which incentives, normative or economic, would motivate people to effectively reduce their water consumption behaviour. Groups 1 and 2 were categorised as “normative” but in different ways: the first is a “motivation which stems from 'doing the right thing'”, while the second is “a shorthand of 'social norms'... a form of conformity”, explains Dr Leong. Groups 3 and 4 were similar in that they offered an economic incentive, either a grocery voucher or a chance to win money in a lucky draw.

The study found that regardless of treatment, people saved an average of 4.9 litres of water a day. And more interestingly, no significant difference was observed across the four treatment groups. That means that the normative incentives worked as well as the economic incentives.

“Given the fact that the government's target is to reduce daily household water consumption per person from 143 litres to 130 litres by 2020, this experiment shows that a simple campaign message or feedback can get us to nearly 50 percent of the target reduction,” says Dr Leong.

The study also showed that these interventions were particularly effective for households with higher than average water use, “precisely the group one would want to target,” she says. These households saw an average reduction of 10 litres per day.

Focusing on normative incentives

So what do these findings mean for policies regarding water conservation?

Firstly, the study implies that water conservation can no longer be used as a reason to justify tariffs on water prices. “Oftentimes, governments raise tariffs, and the justification is almost always that it will encourage people to save water, but this study proves that is not the case. Non-price mechanisms like normative incentives work as well,” Dr Leong says.

Secondly, policies don’t need to be extensive. Even simple actions like giving regular reminders and water-saving tips to the public can be significant in promoting household water conservation. “If normative incentives are as powerful as economic incentives, formulating such incentives should be given as large a role in public policy as formulating economic incentives,” she says.

Thirdly, the study “gives hope that most of us want to 'do the right thing' when it comes to consuming environmental resources – that we can and will respond to normative incentives,” says Dr Leong. This was further evidenced in the six-week post treatment period, where researchers observed even larger savings than during the treatment period – and this was when the households were not aware that their water meter readings were still being observed.

It’s all about providing the right motivation to drive people to your cause.

“This was just one of many experiments to show that moral elements do matter. Governments, as well as scholars and scientists, have a responsibility to create these incentives that allow us to be our best selves,” she says.

Credit: Arek Socha, Ángelo González

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Topics Water