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10 Jul 2018
Topics Water

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Visual tracking indicators could be just what we need in combating water wastage.
If you had watched the harrowing video circulating online of an orangutan’s retaliation against the bulldozer in its devastated habitat, you may have felt impelled to comb through food labels and desist from the consumption of palm oil. When addressing environmental concerns, visuals such as these have been used to evoke turbulent emotions that would encourage us —  even if temporarily — to pursue the morally correct course of action, such as protecting Nature from human devastation. However, these sympathy-brewing, fear-stoking tools of persuasion may not apply in every situation, as evident in the topic of water conservation.

As of 2017, Singapore’s Public Utilities Board (PUB) reported that an average person uses 143 litres of water daily and expressed hope to pare it down to 140 litres by 2030. Some water experts opined that the goal is unambitious and that is likely true, given that daily water usage in other water-efficient cities is slated to plunge to 85 litres by 2035. Even though Singapore is expected to face tremendous water stress by 2040 amid climate change and an increasing population, conservation efforts by Singaporeans remained piecemeal.

Only recently, the banality of water stories in Singapore was interrupted by the news of a 30 per cent price hike in water bills. The controversial topic garnered so much attention that it opened a sluice gate of public opinion — many were rankled at the unexpected leap in water price. The Government responded by maintaining that the hike was mandatory to ensure water security and water conservation. Despite the travails by Singapore’s PUB to underscore the paramount issue of proper water management, why have water conservation messages come up dry?

Three reasons that elucidate our incompetence at conserving water:

  1. Sense of abundance

    Despite facing future threats of water shortage, there was no revision to Singapore’s water price in the last 17 years. Then in 2002, the NEWater plants were commissioned. Suddenly, we were no longer so vulnerable to the whims and fancies of our neighbouring country. The then-Environmental and Water Resources Minister Yaacob Ibrahim called the technological breakthrough a “great relief”. Singaporeans, too, tuned out the deafening threats of Malaysia to cut off Johor’s water supply to Singapore.

    However, the higher costs of treated water were also not reflected in what we call the utility bill — comprising costs of both electricity and water. In fact, many Singaporeans are unaware of their water expenses. With the availability of clean and safe drinking water at a twist of a tap, coupled with relatively low pricing, it is no surprise Singaporeans would hardly give any thought to the process of attaining clean water. This has engendered a sense of abundance and a belief that the status quo will always hold water.

  2. Paucity of knowledge

    Second, unsuccessful conservation messages may be attributed to the paucity of knowledge. Even with the Government and think-tanks’ constant attempt to educate the public on water conservation, the topic remains esoteric and bland. While Singaporeans, inundated by these messages, may have assimilated some water-saving knowledge, it is unclear whether every citizen knows enough. One interesting way of analysing Singaporeans’ knowledge of water is asking this: How many people know what the Four Taps strategy is about?

    That said, countless money pumped into public education on water conservation may not have entirely gone down the drain, as some Singaporeans practise perfunctory water-saving methods – for example, turning the tap off when applying soap. However, simply adhering to prescribed water-saving tips may not tackle problematic areas particular to individuals. For instance, a family purchased a water-efficiency labelled washing machine to save water, but may not be cognizant of their excessive water usage in the shower. With their limited knowledge, some could have been trying to carry water with a sieve. 

  3. Dearth of real-time feedback

The dearth of real-time feedback could explain why Singaporeans, and people around the world, fail to keep up with water conservation. The problematic nature of water use is that they are often unaccountable and unmonitored — we don’t know exactly how much water is consumed or wasted during basic water activities such as showering and watering the plants. However, the addition of a real-time feedback visual indicator could stave off flippant use and motivate us to use only what is necessary.

These devices will serve as a “reminder to individuals during the course of certain behaviour, such as showering, so that the salience of water conservation is raised, and people could respond by immediate change of behaviour such as taking shorter showers or turning off the running tap”, said Qian Neng, a research fellow at the Institute of Water Policy (IWP), Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKYSPP). The institute had recommended the Government to test out the idea, after its previous study revealed that visual tracking indicators would help Singapore HDB households save 10 per cent of shower water on average.

Under IWP’s recommendation, the Government has rolled out the Smart Shower Programme, which will see to the installation of 10,000 smart shower devices in 10,000 new Build-To-Order (BTO) flats by end-2019. These smart shower devices provide real-time information on water use and come in two forms: one displays numerical figures, and the other uses colour codes in the showerhead. Households can set their conservation goals and monitor consumption through a smartphone app.

More importantly, these devices will combat water wastage in the most water-consuming household activity: showering. Households with the installed devices will have their water consumption in the shower tracked, and the collected data will be analysed by the IWP.

Currently, the Smart Shower Programme is a first of an unprecedented large-scale project with over 10,000 units rolled out in any country.

While Singaporeans’ lacklustre water conservation results may be attributed to an amalgamation of reasons, Qian noted that people express higher environment-consciousness than their actual behaviours, and would be spurred to save water when they observe the real-time feedback on water consumption. “We also expect such water conservation practices to have positive spill-over effects to other water-using behaviours at home,” she said.

Perhaps fear-invoking images of droughts and informative articles punctuated with jargons are passé and ineffective at galvanising action. Maybe it is not that Singaporeans espouse a lackadaisical attitude towards conserving water, but that it is tricky, and we can use some help. At present, the Smart Shower Programme is a first at recognising our handicap at water conservation and offering tangible aid in the form of a device.

Having received a S$5 million grant from PUB in May, the IWP will now focus on policy-relevant research in Singapore, which could herald future implementation of tried-and-tested water-saving tools nationwide. As water conservation messages are tweaked to meet Singaporeans’ needs, the onus is on us to be receptive to new findings and adopt recommended measures to facilitate better water conservation.

The institute of Water Policy celebrates its 10th anniversary this year. Did you know that The IWP is also responsible for the evaluation of PUB’s ABC Waters Programme, experimental studies on willingness to drink recycled water, research on NEWater and reducing desalination costs.

For more stories on IWP’s impact in Singapore, visit the Institute of Water Policy or waterpolicy.online.

Topics Water