The Value of Water

At a conference workshop hosted by the Water New Zealand Water Efficiency and Conservation Network (WECAN), industry communications and sustainability professionals shared ideas on sparking a national water conservation and literacy conversation. Chris Green and Julian Fyfe from Wellington Water explain.

Water literacy is in its infancy among many New Zealanders as we look to meet the future challenges of our changing industry. The workshop grappled with key challenges around consumer behaviour – something faced by water companies in both Aotearoa New Zealand and Australia.

Presentations from Watercare in Auckland, Smart Water in the Waikato and The Water Conservancy in Australia pointed to many similar challenges we face in getting people to not only understand the importance of water supply sustainability and water conservation, but how they personally can do something about it.

Despite different drivers for water conservation across the three regions, there were many common themes.

Watercare experienced an extreme drought in 2019-20, which prompted a concerted campaign to reduce demand amongst their customers. The comprehensiveness and level of collaboration involved across their campaign really stuck out. Rachel Hughes and Priya Thurai highlighted how the work done with Auckland City Council helped to significantly amplify the message. Getting community groups and large companies to buy-in to encouraging public action were crucial as was water restrictions and clever creative messages.

In the Waikato, Smart Water is a partnership between local councils to coordinate and deliver water conservation projects and campaigns. Leading this work, Michelle Templeton drove behaviour change through community outreach and collaboration. This included emphasising water as a precious resource for the Hamilton, Waipā and Waitomo communities and upholding principles of the Te Ture Whaimana strategy and the message of Te Mana o te Wai. Smart Water took a community-based, social marketing approach, using psychological techniques to overcome barriers to behaviour change. The approach was aimed at fostering long-term modification of water usage.

At this point a brief poll was taken to gauge the room on the level of engagement and information gathering the audience’s organisations currently undertake to inform their communications. It was clear there are opportunities for shared learnings across our industry and the potential to pool knowledge.

The Water Conservancy in Australia talked about the fundamental equation to getting water conservation messaging across: Education + Experience = Endearment. Engagement through the school curriculum combined with fun excursions encouraged students to learn first-hand about where their water came from. The Water Conservancy’s CEO Chris Philpot said understanding attitudes to water was central to informing this work and they had undertaken significant research to back up their thinking. A key highlight was the Water Night campaign encouraging households to not use water between 5pm and 10pm on Thursday 20th October - no taps, no showers, no running water. We could see this as an opportunity for this to work in New Zealand in 2023.

The workshop concluded with a poll and group conversations about the barriers facing water professionals in building water literacy and a water conservation ethic amongst customers. It found barriers to changing attitudes and behaviour included budget constraints, the management of leaks, reporting and data collection, customer engagement with the utility and a lack of knowledge among customers about what they were paying for.

There was agreement that increased funding for running campaigns, education materials that use simple language rather than jargon, and water metering to drive better understanding of consumption would all help consumers understand the value of water in their region.

As a communications specialist for Wellington Water in the throes of working on our 2022/2023 water conservation campaign, I was pleased that our communications planning aligned with activities in case studies presented and inspired by their experiences to build on our future activity.

The workshop provided a starting point for growing our shared focus to increase water conservation across Aotearoa. The group is keen to hear from other people working in this area who’d like to be involved in starting a shared community to foster collaboration or who are looking into mounting a water literacy campaign or conservation ethos amongst their customer base.

Please get in touch if you want to know more or have ideas you’d like to share. Email Julian Fyfe, Programme Manager Sustainable Water Supply and Demand at Wellington Water

This article appears in the November/December edition of Water.  You can read the full edition on Issuu