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How to ‘nudge’ Australians to use less water

Australians live on the driest inhabited continent, and we also have the second highest average water use per person in the world, at 493 litres a day. But as the impacts of climate intensify and Australia’s population grows, the gap between the supply and demand of water will continue to narrow.

To ensure adequate access to fresh water, Australia can increase water supply through developing infrastructure or focus on reducing water demand through behavioural interventions. Increasing water supply is costly and requires a long lead time for infrastructure investment. By contrast, demand-side interventions, such as using behavioural sciences to encourage, or ‘nudge,’ Australians to use less water, can be adopted straight away. Interventions like these will certainly be at least one key to managing our sustainability challenges.

Understanding the motivators and barriers to water conservation are important for designing interventions that are behaviourally informed and have the best chance of having impact.

Most of us believe water is a precious resource but, as many previous studies have shown, while attitudes towards conserving water are generally positive, they often fail to translate to behaviour. 

Research suggests that one of the key drivers of saving water is social norms –  the beliefs, attitudes and behaviours that are viewed as acceptable among social groups. In the context of water usage, that’s community attitudes and
behaviours around consumption.

Some interventions based on social norms could include:

  • Creating new norms around the value of water conservation. Particularly in areas prone to excessive consumption, this is likely to help people reduce their water usage. Research has found that
    using inclusive language to highlight that saving water is a valued part of ‘who we are’ and ‘how we act’ as a community can also encourage water conservation.  For example, advertisements could communicate that being water conscious and saving water is an important part of the social identity of Australians.
  • Offering feedback. Drawing on the influence of social norms, providing households with feedback on their water use can change their behaviour. This can include offering comparisons between the water use of an individual’s household and similar households in their
    neighbourhood. As households have historically held limited knowledge about how other’s use water, it appears that ‘correcting’ these misconceptions can lead to effective change in behaviour. 

Of course, social norms are only one behavioural driver – others include attitudes, emotions, knowledge, capability, and opportunity. A more comprehensive approach that segments customers into behavioural driver groups may be able to better tailor interventions to each behavioural customer segment.

By applying a behavioural economics lens, innovative approaches that are tailored to overcoming consumer behavioural barriers can help tackle important societal challenges.

The issue of water consumption and conservation will certainly come into sharper focus as we approach the prospect of a very hot summer ahead.


This blog was co-authored by Sara Agostino, Senior Analyst, and Wing Hsieh, Director, at Deloitte Access Economics. 


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