Water under pressure, Our most precious resource – Tim O’Riordan, UEA

View the video from Tims presentation at the conference.

Tim O'RiordonWe are entering a stage in the long transition to sustainable development where the distinctions between the public, private and civil/third sector designations are becoming increasingly blurred. This is driven by three forces. One is the shrinking of public expenditures, another is the capture by the private sector of greater social responsibility, and the third is the recognition that both resilience of nature’s functions and wellbeing of human satisfaction require a fresh alignment of cooperation and common endeavour.

In this address I make the case for water companies to become champions of the wider social interest in this emerging new world. There are five reasons for arguing this position.

The first is that water is a universal resource which encapsulates both a commercial and a social value well beyond the drive for shareholder returns.

The second is that the regulatory agencies dealing with water care both in the commercial sector (Ofwat) and the environmental realms (the Environment Agency) are offering much more scope for longer term social and natural benefits from private investment.

The third is that the water cycle is increasingly regarded as social cycle where “wastewater” is seen as “recycled” water and hence a vital resource for maintaining low river flows and recharging depleted aquifers, and where leaving water in situ for nature is an act not of “sacrifice” or “reduction” of availability, but of “sustainability sharing”.

The fourth is that managing water is nowadays seen as a landscape maintaining and socio-economic enhancing activity well beyond the scope of commercial gain, and hence where other funders and players need to be involved in the processes of water care. This links both to energy management as well as carbon reduction since water transport is such a major user of both energy and of carbon. Therefore a case for distributing water delivery to smaller scale areas is both a cost saving and an act of social and environmental responsibility through the reduction of energy use and greenhouse gas emissions. To cut both of these as an attribute for sustainable and distributed water and recycled water care would be a hallmark of a social interest company. To make carbon sequestration a further component would mean enabling water companies working with other energy users to co-invest in carbon sinks such as wetlands allotments and recreational woodlands with local authorities (as flood managers) conservation charities, and educational bodies. Such would be the way forward for landscapes for life.

Following on from this, the fifth feature is that the modern water company should be regarded as a spider web of interconnecting actors, agencies and funders which invest collectively and purposefully towards the holy grail of sustainable water stewardship and overall social wellbeing. I argue that a “contented” public aligned to a trusted water company is much more likely to commit to sustainable water use (especially on a street level) which enhances their total wellbeing.

Taking the social interest company idea forward

Trust building

There is a massive opportunity for water companies to create a network of companionships of trusting collaborators. The notion of companionship applies to a sharing of learning and of experience of the new and unfamiliar. It also means sticking to cooperation even when the early negotiations are tricky. Above all it applies to showing integrity and honesty on embarking on a new journey where the pathways are neither straight nor unimpeded

Moral framing for future water consumption

Many studies have shown that changes in social behaviour require a combination of financial incentive, robust regulation and moral framing. The third is the blood stream for the other two. Moral framing means that people act in a certain way because they feel that to do so is “right”, socially approved, and bestows pride. This in turn requires appropriate levels of information, streaming of good communication over the social, economic and environmental benefits for water care, and trust in the organisation leading the charge.

Here is the need for rebranding Anglian Water in this region as a social interest company. If this is the case then those who are part of the new companionship will see that efforts to redesign the allocation of water, and to reallocate “saved” water use through incentives and new arrangements for water care, are set in a framework of trust and moral support. Thus any effort to reduce domestic and business consumption requires the combination of good messages; reallocation of the saved water to those who are seen to be important beneficiaries (new entrants, new economic actors, poorer people who deserve some relief financially); and an appropriate mix of incentives and payments.

This moral framing also requires Anglian Water to redouble its efforts to work with consumers and communities to identify leaks and to ensure rapid response, as well as to share through user workshop and local schools ways in which “new” water (captured from excess rainfall and storms as well as released by savings in current patterns of consumption) can best be allocated. Here is where catchment ambassadors come in (see below)

Redesigning water use and savings payments

The onset of broadband and the more ubiquitous mobile phone offers huge opportunities for experimentation in better information provision and incentivising water saving. There is a clear case that any overall and persistent saving brings huge cost reduction gains for Anglian Water. This is because there would be less need for new expensive infrastructure and more freedom to reallocate genuinely spare and released water already in the resource.

There is therefore exciting scope for on-line water metering to be made available to consumers on a continuous basis. This could offer a running account of water use and costs to the household. It could also be backed by information and appropriate price incentives to assist householders and businesses (and schools and other public sector users) cut out avoidable and hygiene-neutral water usage. There is a case for experimenting with the water equivalent of a “feed-in tariff” where persistent water savings are rewarded by a reduction on the monthly water charge. And there is a parallel case where new customers of this “saved” water have to pay a premium for the privilege of receiving lower cost water from the better managed existing resource than what they would otherwise have to bear (though not necessarily charged over all consumers) should there “new” water come from afar. The mobile phone app could also be designed to assist in giving real time information to consumers about the changes to their household/business water bills to continue their commitment to better overall water care.

Social interest water ambassadors

Here is where I suggest we bring in the schools. There is an impressive opportunity for enabling school pupils to shape their school water use, to become informed over the whole catchment benefits (to nature and for people) of free flowing rivers and a thriving local water based economy. Furthermore such infirmed pupils are the best ambassadors for their own families and neighbourhoods. They could indeed become the moral framers of the next generation.

But an ambassador can also come from the farming communities, local business groups and the parishes. The key is to give them a collective identity (such as the “blue label” guides who offer local history to visitors in Norwich) so they are proud to be part of a water camaraderie. Such an arrangement could be explored in the water resource 2030 workshop suggested above. Ambassadors are networks of connected people who share the same moral frameworks and who act as trusted stewards of the catchment.

Making the case for Ecological Enterprise Zones

Ecological Enterprise Zones (EEZs) are places where people work fruitfully, where communities take responsibility for their own ecological treasures, and where enterprise, entrepreneurship and ingenuity can flourish. Such zones create wealth through ecological resilience and community-sponsored activity. They do not require special designation. They can be located singly or in groups but critically they blend both an ecosystem and a human geography into an effective ecological localism. We also place EEZs in the emerging governance context of a diminishing public sector, more socially interacting businesses, greater subsidiarity and viable decentralisation.

Establishing ‘peoples’ nature’ in every town and village would bind communities into a common cause, provide safe open space for exercise and low carbon recreation, overcome low levels of mental health damage, and offer to future generations a guarantee of fresh nature at the heart of where they live and play. Improving wildlife diversity and survival by introducing long lost species or by enriching the habitat for many more birds, animals, invertebrates and biota attracts visitors and nearby residents, thereby creating sources of revenue which would not otherwise be on offer. Bringing new nature into the lives of a whole community binds people into a common cause of pride and commitment, adding to the strengthening of social bonds, improving community cohesiveness, and generating for the schools a whole new learning and enabling experience. Providing designed ‘floodways’ cuts down the damage of wild flooding, reduces insurance premiums and payouts, provides sources of water for expanded development, thereby encouraging investment in ‘water safer’ enterprise areas.

Our sense of place is about more than just a concept of neighbourhood. It is also about a wider emotional politics of the common good. Communities that have sufficient energy to shape local public life (including public services) exist where people are able to create trusting relationships; with neighbours, teachers, doctors, shop-keepers, lollipop ladies and postmen. They are what enable us to invest in making the place we live in together, better. This means, of course, that communities are central to how we can care much better for our environment via EEZs.

With lack of meaningful employment facing almost a third of young people in the UK, and where many such young adults would like to play their part in enriching their communities and ecosystems, there is a strong case for creating opportunities for social enterprise in EEZs. One possibility lies in woodland management for enhancing resilience and biodiversity, for creating wood based products for housing and furniture, and for providing biomass and wood based fuels. Another possibility is to open up natural fibres and food products for creative design and local food growing and cooking advice.

Who knows: the entrepreneurs of the future may be bred in schools where pupils take responsibility for knowing how to lead, how to re-create natural processes, communicate the excitement and spiritual pleasure of generating a special space, and doing so in ways which add value to human wellbeing. EEZs should provide the heartbeat of leadership, confidence, adaptability, teamwork and rewards for persistence over generations. These are the qualities of sustainable citizenship which will be so needed within a generation.

Stewarding Water in Landscapes for Life – Tim O’Riordan, Professor of Environmental Science, UEA.
Speaking at Landscapes for Life Conference 2013.

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