3 Apr 2018

Reducing urban water waste (part 1 of 3)

Back in 2014, I wrote a few briefings for a [name hidden] client who sat on the content. Our contract does not allow me to publish their "template" but I am free to publish my words, so here they are. Feel free to forward these posts, but please make sure my name and email are included ;)


This package contains two solutions. The first addresses local government (LG) “water waste." The second solution addresses water waste in the residential, commercial, industrial and institutional (RESCOM) sectors. Both solutions are designed to reduce stress on local water supplies without distorting or undermining the financial stability of the drinking water provider (DWP).

People define “water waste” according to their subjective beliefs about the relative costs and benefits of water use. We will respect these beliefs by focusing on ideas that reduce aggregate water use without ascribing or assigning reductions to individuals. Following the same logic, we will note that various “stressed” cities within “non-stressed” countries should implement the portions of this solution that address their local conditions.

This package is aimed at DWPs that supply water to all potential customers on an environmentally and/or financially unsustainable basis. It is not directly relevant for DWPs that provide sustainable services, although these DWPs may opt to increase their efficiency by adopting measures described herein.

The solution also does not apply to DWPs that fail to reach all potential customers. In those cases, it is more important to extend the network to unserved citizens before worrying about waste from existing customers. The solutions here can be helpful, however, in planning or implementing policies aimed at financing a network expansion or reducing existing customers’ water use to make more water available for new customers.

Why do we care?

The Stockholm International Water Institute estimates that every dollar spent on piped water supply brings four dollars in benefits. This ratio is helpful as a justification for investing in system expansion, but it’s also useful as an indicator of the damage that results when systems decay or collapse. This package is aimed at preventing such troubles by improving operating efficiency and increasing customer engagement.

Both solutions in this package focus on reducing water waste. One looks at water waste within local government operations (abbreviated LG); another considers options for reducing waste for residential, commercial, industrial and institutional customers (abbreviated RESCOM). The solutions are separated in recognition of differing incentive and governance structures.

LG staff in different business units (BUs) use water to meet various regulatory, cultural and community needs, but they do not pay for water. In some cases, neither do their BUs. These weak financial incentives suggest an approach that relies more on non-financial inducements to reduce waste, such as ranking BUs in proportion to their progress towards conservation targets (“benchmark competition”). The case with RESCOM users is more straightforward: raising the price of water so customers have a reason to repair leaks, install more efficient appliances, and reconsider water-consuming habits.

Both solutions rely very heavily on the installation and use of water meters, which should be numerous enough to give detailed data to decisionmakers without being so ubiquitous as to waste money. Both solutions also require extensive outreach, education and community feedback, as many people do not see their water use as part of a larger problem, know how to change their water footprint, or feel like they have a voice in community water management.

Meters, prices and conversation should be used together to inform people of how much they are using, how much their use costs, and how their choices affect the community. LG must play a central role in these dialogues as well as providing adequate time and money to facilitate training, install equipment, and maintain open communications among stakeholders.

Most cities have gone through similar processes regarding urban zoning, transportation, schools, etc. Now they must engage in a multi-year process to improve water allocation and reduce water waste. Water shortages are the 21st century equivalent of the overflowing sewers and drains that threatened cities in the 19th century. The good news is that it’s much faster and cheaper to reduce water waste; the bad news is that water waste cannot be addressed with a one-size-fits-all set of drains and pipes. These solutions must be implemented according to local traditions and conditions if they are to induce promised savings.

Strategic impacts of success
  • Improved cross-government information sharing
  • Improved social and economic indicators for mortality, morbidity, and productivity
  • Improved social cohesion and cooperation from protecting services for all
  • Attracting new residents and businesses through reliable water services
  • Decreased pressure on water resources and related political tensions
  • Increased awareness of overall resource efficiency
  • Improved ecosystem health and ecosystem services.
  • Decreased or postponed capital investments in water-supply infrastructure
  • Improved awareness and responsiveness to climate change
Direct impacts of success
  • Improved reliability and quality of DWP services
  • Improved DWP financial sustainability
  • Strengthened customer-utility relations (via payment for service)
  • Decreased water consumption
  • Lower capital spending and expansion-related system disruptions
  • Lower energy use and carbon emissions
  • Reduced impacts from new development
Solution: reducing local government waste

Who? Internal local government operations (i.e., business units delivering services such as transportation, education, public spaces, waste management, etc.)

What? LG needs to set goals for reducing water waste and establish systems for monitoring, reporting and feedback (rewards), such that BUs know how much water they are using, how much “waste” they should reduce, and which BUs are making the most and least progress. LG will need to pay for the oversight system and perhaps subsidize BUs facing high transitional costs.

How? LG should allow BUs to find their own ways to reduce water waste, as they see “inside the black box” of their operations. LG should monitor water use as well as BU operations, to make sure that priority customer services do not deteriorate. Some services may be cut, in the name of reducing waste.

Solution: reducing residential and commercial waste

Who? Most urban water is used by these sectors. Residential use ranges from basic health and sanitation (drinking, bathing, cooking) to “lifestyle” consumption (landscaping, pools, etc.). Commercial use is aimed at increasing profits. Water waste will depend on various definitions of water value or need.

What? LG and DWP can increase water prices and/or incentivize adoption of low consumption appliances. These steps will be more effective – and more acceptable to citizens – if they are accompanied by extensive education, outreach and feedback mechanisms that help citizens “do their part.”

How? LG and DWP should signal changes well in advance of implementation and allow stakeholders to participate in developing programs, to maximize effectiveness. Actual results will depend on citizen responsiveness. Initial results can be used to design the next phase of implementation.

In Part 2 & Part 3, I'll give more details on how to design and implement these solutions.

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