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About my passion for valuing water

by Gail Walker, CAS Policy manager.

This article first appeared in the Herald on 24 March 2021.

Monday was World Water Day. It’s OK. You’re forgiven for not knowing. After all, for most people, water is not something you think about very much. Why should it even have a Day?

It’s a fair question. If I explain that it’s a United Nations thing, you may get the gist. It’s all about understanding the significance of water as a precious resource and asking us to think about it at a global as well as a national and community level.

Like all living beings, we depend on water for our survival. And to make it safe to drink, we need to treat it. But if we’re not involved in the process and therefore don’t appreciate the significance of it, do we lose the bigger picture? Well, I think yes, we probably do.

I’ve worked in water policy in Scotland for 13 years. For the last 7 years I’ve been working at Citizens Advice Scotland, with a brief to represent the consumer interest in the water sector. (Yes, we’ve got your back on so much more than just debt, benefits and other social problems). 

In that capacity I was invited to give a speech to a conference on Monday, and in drafting that I got focused on that word I just used. Consumer. 

We’re all consumers of goods and services, every minute of every hour of every day. We move in and out of multiple service scenarios seamlessly, not really thinking about the dynamic – until our finely balanced, busy days start to go wrong because the wheels have fallen off a service that we take for granted.

Prior to Covid-19, many of us travelled to work daily. Our mornings consisted of a tightly managed minute-by-minute schedule, from getting up, washed, dressed, fed and to the station on time for a train, or onto the motorway to miss the worst of the traffic. Hopefully by the time we reached the office, we’d managed to grab a coffee somewhere on the way. So every morning saw the same real-time journey through multiple sectors delivering linked and often co-dependent services in their required sequence: Energy, Water, the Local Authority Roads Department, National Car Parks, Scotrail, 4G, the local coffee shop…

The pandemic of course has interrupted this Groundhog Day schedule. We’ve become even more dependent on household utility services working for us throughout the day to support home working and home schooling. Our reliance on the internet has expanded to allow us to communicate with the outside world without turning us into a series of disconnected pixels or a disembodied tinny voice. Covid-19 has forced us to simplify our days, unwind the complexity and slim down the number of services we use to just a few that are absolutely critical. Perhaps in doing so, and losing a lot of the ‘white noise’ that filled our days, we’ve begun to distinguish between those services that we absolutely need and those that are ‘nice to haves’.

Customer satisfaction with water and waste-water services in Scotland has been growing steadily. In fact, during last year’s lockdown they rose to above 90%. This would suggest that on some level we’re aware of the importance of water and appreciative of Scottish Water as an organisation, particularly when we have a water problem and someone dutifully comes out and fixes it.

This past year, we’ve all recognised the importance of having reliable access to water: our homes are busy during the day, we’re having to wash our hands more frequently, toilets are flushed more often, cups of tea are made ad nauseum. Services must work for those who need them.

Yet how often do we really give water a second thought? How often do we think about its value, our total dependence on it and our need to protect it?

We’re living in a time of climate change and of increased understanding the damage we’re doing to the planet. The future health of our world and its ability to sustain us is of significant concern. We need to reconsider the relationships between our society and natural resources, and effect changes that restore a more realistic balance. That includes re-engaging consumers with goods and services in a way that supports understanding and positive choices over behaviour and usage.

Water is part of this equation. It should be cherished, respected, and valued. A significant challenge that the water sector and governments face is how to achieve this in a way that positively embeds and reflects an awareness of the importance of water in people’s everyday behaviour. There’s a need to develop conscious choices that will help to protect this precious resource, thereby reconnecting people to something essential that mustn’t be taken for granted.

CAS is part of a number of working groups seeking to find ways of helping service users to value water more by wasting less, and how to do that in their homes and businesses.

The theme of World Water Day this year was exactly along these lines: ‘valuing water.’ You can get lots of great information here.

If you’ve read this far you will hopefully understand my passion for water, and for World Water Day. So I’d like to ask you that you take on its message, and be part of this movement going forward. Turn off the tap when brushing your teeth; take shorter showers. Check out that World Water Day website and talk to your friends and your family – especially children and grandchildren – about how they too should respect water and get on board this campaign. And why not put next year’s World Water Day – 22 March - in your diary as something to actively celebrate next year?

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