Could changing water behaviours help alleviate the water crisis in Auckland?
Tēnā koutou katoa (hello to all of you)
I trained and worked around the world as a Civil Engineer, specialising in highway design, waste water infrastructure, and water supply. Now, I think less about the concrete and more about the people that make up the systems we live in. Which is why I think water scarcity is a collective problem and we all have a role to play.
My home city, Tāmaki Makaurau (also known as Auckland), runs a risk of running out of water in the next 6-9 months due to an intense and unexpected lack of rainfall this year. Keeping this in context, Auckland is a relatively wet city; we typically get >1,200mm of rainfall a year, and it rains on 37% of the days in a year. That’s a function of our geography, being a tiny strip of land between two oceans. But that’s the part that appears to defy logic; we’re a wet city, how an earth can we be running out of water?
With the impacts of climate change becoming increasingly apparent, water security and supply are a concern for societies and their governments. A lot of work is happening around the world to develop the resilience we need to ensure water, the most essential of ingredients for life, is plentiful and available.
As I have been thinking about the water challenges, and reflecting on my own behaviours in response to Auckland’s water shortages, I have been pondering what some of the possibilities might be.
I keep returning to a single point: our response usually defaults to increasing the supply of water, rather than exploring how we can reduce demand. We have an opportunity to flip the conversation and uncover ways of doing more with less, for the benefit of people and the planet.
1. Imagine if we designed our cities to create circular water systems?
Compared to other countries that I’ve visited and lived in, Aotearoa New Zealand seems to be well behind in terms of designing urban water systems to reuse and recirculate water. The simplest options are rainwater tanks for garden irrigation or house water, separating greywater from blackwater to recycle water rather than running it into the sea, etc. How much could we reduce our water demand if we designed our cities well?
2. Imagine if our water usage was highly visible in real time?
A universal insight into human behaviour is apparent abundance of resource increases consumption. By turning on a tap, we’re disconnected from where our water is coming from and where it is going, with little idea of how much we’re using. To make this visible in real time via water metering has huge potential to drive different behaviour. Collectively, what if we had a graph showing daily water consumption across the city plastered across digital screens and social media so we can see our collective efforts making a difference?
3. Imagine if we had visible cues to show there’s a water shortage?
I was recently at a seaside park attempting to wash the mud off my 6-year-old son’s lower half. He had a fabulous time wading in the mud when the tide was out. Interestingly, the tap only had a trickle of water. I’m not sure if it was malfunctioning or was under reduced pressure due to the water shortages, but what a great idea! I got the job done, even if a bit slower than normal, while using a fraction of the water I would have normally used and having a very tangible reminder that have a water problem. What if we could opt for reduced water pressure in our houses to reduce our water demand?4. Imagine if saving water was fun?
We all know that introducing competition, gamification and fun can support us to change behaviours. We also know that social pressure is major driver of behaviour, either maintaining the status quo or encouraging a change. How do we turn saving water into a positive challenge; within a household, between households, with colleagues, or with extended family?
5. Imagine if it the goal or vision was easy to visualise?
I’ve found it hard to rationalise that we’re running out of water when it’s cold and wet outside (it’s winter after all), impacting my motivation to act. On top of this, many of us find it difficult to make sacrifices today to benefit ourselves or others in the future. What if publicity around the problem helped us think ahead to what we are going to give up in the future if we run out of water, making short term sacrifices much more palatable?
6. Imagine if the needs of some didn’t need to impact on the rights of others?
A challenge with adding more supply is that the certain individuals or groups carry the cost on behalf of all of us. Whether that is ocean impacts from desalination, river degradation from diversions, reduced aquifer levels, or environmental impacts of creating new dams. What if we could find ways to reduce our impact on these important water sources?
My reflection is that we’re not going to build a resilient and sustainable water system by building more supply, we’re going to do it by thinking differently, collaborating more, and changing our behaviour to consume less.
W Lab - the Innovation Technology Program in partnership with Isle Utilities and Water Services Association of Australia (WSAA) facilitated by my ThinkPlace counterparts in Australia couldn’t have come at a better time. We are bringing together a range of stakeholders from across the water industry to explore the challenges facing the sector, identify opportunities for innovation, and develop strategies for how to utilise new technologies to undertake these innovations.
Most importantly, we have to remember that we all have a role to play in this; it is not the sole responsibility of just the municipal water agency.
I’m off to check whether the toilets are overdue for a flush, or whether we can let it mellow for a bit longer!
But first, some simple wisdom gifted to the world from the tangata whenua (people of the land) of New Zealand:
Ko te wai te ora ngā mea katoa.
Water is the life giver of all things.
(with thanks to the input from Marshall Bell)