We need to change our public messaging on water, say psychologists at WSBF roundtable

Future water demand projections will require people to use less water in the future, but are the public aware of this? Climate change impacts to flooding risk mean that more people will need to make their homes resilient to flooding, but are people prepared for this responsibility?

This roundtable was chaired by Angela Smith MP, Bricks & Water co-chair, member of the EFRA Select Committee and former Shadow Water and Flooding Minister. Expert speakers were:

  • Carolin Reiner, Behavioural Insights Team
  • Dr Vittoria Danino, Anglian Centre for Water Studies
  • Dr Rose Meleady, University of East Anglia

This was the second of the follow-up events to WSBF's Bricks & Water report which looked at public attitudes to water resources and flood risk in England, and sought to answer the following questions:

  • Do people appreciate the need to save water after the heatwave this summer, or do they see it as unnecessary because of wet weather and leakage?
  • Considering that water is a very cheap utility, is environmental impact messaging the way to make them change their behavior?
  • Despite all the information that is available to them, why do 67% of homeowners not know their flood risk?
  • How do people understand risk and probability? What does ‘a 1-100 year flooding event’ mean to them?

The key points were:

  • Our choices and behaviours are influenced by factors and biases that are often unconscious, we are often not the well-reasoned, coherent and deliberative decision-makers that we think ourselves to be. Appealing to the public on rational messages like ‘save water to save on you water bill’ will be of limited effectiveness. The brain discounts future rewards for the present at a high rate – so a long shower today is more appealing than saving water in the future.
  • Behavioural change messaging needs to be a simple and specific call to action, and reflect the desires and needs of the users in order to be effective. Generic messages like ‘save water’ don’t work. Effecting people’s perceived social norms can also be effective in getting behavioural change – ‘Join your neighbours in saving water’. Messages also need to consider the framing of the message, and the social context in which water is used. Tweaking messaging to promote better behaviours for society can be cheap and low regrets actions for the government and water companies.
  • Habitual behaviours can be hard to break, which is why the optimal time to try and influence behaviour is to communicate with them at a time of change e.g. when someone moves house.
  • Public awareness of drought and flood risk is low, as this is the first barrier to achieving behavioural change. However just giving the public more information alone will not be effective. Fearmongering of the worst case scenario is also an inhibitor of action, and could be perceived as too pessimistic to be believed.

WSBF recommends:

  • A Property Resilience Certificate for houses should be introduced by the government to raise public awareness of the relative water efficiency and flood resilience of their home.
  • Water bills should be easier to understand and more smart meters are needed. The public need readily available data on their consumption in order to correct their daily habits.
  • Water companies need to reduce water leakage to show the public that they value water, and their efforts to save water are not wasted. The water industry needs to get better at continually talking to their customers about saving water.
  • The government should review the role of Flood Re (Government backed flood insurance scheme) in providing the right incentive for making homes more resilient to flooding.