Droughts are expected to become more common in the UK as a result of climate change. Traditionally, responses to droughts have been restrictions on types of water consumption, but longer term responses focus on expansion of the supply network. Thanks to a social contract that implies a limitless water supply as a human right, irrespective of the climate, and the political barriers to meaningful changes in water consumption demand, responses to drought in the UK will focus on usage restrictions in times of crisis in 2040.
Figure 1: Expected change in UK temperature in 2080 (10%-90% probability)
Source: Adaption and Resilience in the Context of Climate Change (ARCC), UKCP09
Water demand management has emerged over the last decade as a 'low regrets' option to drive more efficient use of existing supply networks. This is broadly defined as any action that reduces the amount of freshwater humans use or that keeps water cleaner than it would otherwise be. Research into water demand often leads to demand management initiatives focusing on low-flow technologies (such as water saving taps and shower heads) due to their relatively low cost and ease of implementation.
Perceptions that low-flow water fittings are inferior to traditional technologies mean that significant uptake of these technologies may require legislation in the UK, as increased drought occurrences puts pressure on water regulators. The limited uptake of these technologies has also given rise to the criticism that they preserve consumption behaviours and don’t manage city water demand in a transformative or meaningful way.
It is increasingly acknowledged that water consumption patterns are wrapped up in cultural identity, social belonging, and what people perceive as normal. Taking a shower, for example, is driven by social norms of freshness, health, decency and cleanliness, not through metrics of volumes of H2O. These norms are so strong that proposals to change them can be national news.
However, by 2040, change they will. Research suggests that that disrupting and making explicit these norms can force users to confront the ordinary, inconspicuous, and unspectacular rituals of daily water use, and is politically uncomfortable territory.
One shift already underway is simply to take away the possibility of having a bath. With a premium on space and rising house prices, it’s increasingly common to see flats built with only a shower and no bath. In 1970, just 5% of households had a shower, compared with about 80% today.
Droughts are difficult to predict and it is not immediately clear when one starts. With the element of surprise, drought crises make it easy to abandon innovative approaches to reduce water consumption and revert to temporary restrictions on visible consumption. Additionally, the view of water as a basic human right means that attempts to restrict water consumption have only been acceptable at times of perceived crisis. It is for these reasons that water consumption in 2040 will look much the same as today; with daily practices and interactions involving water unchanged, except to the extent that a sheer absence of space might cause some water-guzzling uses to be abandoned.
Compare this with the performance of commercial property, where the debate over rights and behaviour patterns is much less sensitive: one global study shows a 12% drop in water consumption in eight years, which could suggest a further 30% drop by 2040 on current trends.