Drought and water shortages are now a regular feature of UK life. Low rainfall and hotter temperatures are putting huge pressure on our potable water supply, which is being stressed even further by an ever-increasing demand from a growing population.
As we have previously reported, a ‘Day Zero’ scenario - where the demand for water is greater than the supply - is uncomfortably close. But the UK has historically been a wet country, and until now we’ve taken it for granted that water will always be plentiful. Unfortunately this is no longer the case, so we need to find ways to encourage individuals and businesses to become more water efficient.
Most businesses have already discovered the advantages of installing a water meter. You only pay for the water you use, and with the ability to monitor your water usage, you’re much more likely to implement water efficiency measures in order to save money on your water bills. As an example, when staff at Swindon Borough Council questioned higher than expected water meter readings, a major leak was discovered. Fixing that leak as soon as it was discovered saved the Council from losing 78,840 cubic meters of water a year, which would have cost around £250,000 annually!
So water meters will not only have a direct impact on your business profits, they will also indirectly help to conserve water supplies, which is better for people, better for business, and better for the environment.
The 18th century social philosopher and political economist Adam Smith came up with the diamond-water paradox, which is still relevant today. He looked at the economic value of diamonds versus water. Even though water is essential for life and diamonds are not, economically, diamonds are treated as far more valuable. The reason for this is because of their scarcity. While water is plentiful and easily accessible to everyone, diamonds are few and far between, which is why they come with such a high price tag.
It is therefore reasonable to expect that, as water becomes scarcer, it is going to demand a higher price point. One team in the BBC series The Apprentice experienced this in a recent task. After organising a company awayday in the Dubai desert, they found themselves in hot water when they realised they hadn’t ordered enough drinking water for their clients. The catering company was the only source of water for miles around and, rather unsurprisingly, charged them double the usual price of their bottled water. Needless to say, the team lost the task.
This anecdote simply proves the diamond-water paradox - when something is in short supply, it will cost more. And in times of greater water scarcity in the future, this will probably mean businesses will have to pay more for their water. Research undertaken in Utah found that for every 10% increase in water rates there was a 6.5% decrease in water usage.
But while this method works, it is not equitable. So rather than a blanket rise in water prices, different pricing models have been put forward to encourage companies that are bigger water users to take steps to save water, without necessarily pushing prices up for low users.
As a working example of using variable pricing to manage water demand, the Fairfax County Water Authority in the USA issues Peak User Charges as a way of reducing water consumption. The surcharge only applies between June and November and is calculated based on winter usage. This goes some way to addressing the inequity of raising water prices for all users at peak times, by targeting only those users who use more. When the peak-use surcharge was first introduced, there was a reduction in the proportion of water sold at peak times from 8% to 3.8%.
In 2020, Sydney Water in Australia introduced a new drought pricing structure that was designed to encourage people to conserve water to help reduce the environmental impact of drought. Customers now pay an ‘average weather’ price for most of the year, but when the water levels of dams fall below 60%, the price increases. This is to encourage people to conserve water when water is scarce.
An opinion piece recently published in The Conversation has suggested incentivising people to use less water through customised water pricing. It was co-written by an economics professor and an engineering professor who acknowledge the difficulties of simply raising prices because of the harm it would cause low-income households. They put forward a customised ‘opt-in approach’ to encourage richer households - who are traditionally greater water users - to do more to save water. They suggest a pilot programme in which high-water-use households are paid an annual fee for participating in the scheme, in return for water that is charged at triple the current rate. This would provide a clear incentive to use less water, and it would provide data for the water companies on estimating the benefits of customised water pricing on water conservation.
Pricing structures may be something that is being talked about for future strategies, but there are plenty of ways your business can save money by implementing water efficiency measures now. Book a comprehensive water audit to get an overview of how your business uses water and identify ways of saving water and saving money.
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