Saving water with a nudge or two

A light push in the right direction may lead to a change in water using behaviours.


“Hands Up! You’re under arrest!”

“For wasting water!!”

Sounds absurd?

Not really.

Back in the late 1970s and early 1990s when California faced severe droughts, repeat water wasters were threatened with not only fines, but jail time.

Although eventually no one was actually jailed, it remains debatable whether such extreme measures will actually deter others from wasting water.

And well, if all else fails, some cities have turned to the age old tactic of naming and shaming those who use water excessively. In southern Nevada, the making of public records requests to identify the biggest water hogs has become an annual media exercise. You’ll be surprised to find out that some of the culprits turned out to be high-profile celebs such as Barbra Streisand!

Increasingly, we’re also seeing more cities considering subtler approaches such as the use of peer pressure and behavioural nudges for water conservation. These approaches aim to change behaviour and create a social norm of saving water.

A study done in Belén, Costa Rica found that monthly water consumption reduced by up to 5.6% when residents were provided with feedback about how their water use compared to neighbours.[1]

East Bay Municipal Utility District, which serves 1.3 million customers in the east San Francisco Bay Area, goes on extra step further by issuing individual residential customers with water report cards, showing how their use compares with similar-sized households in the area. Households using less than the average water consumption got a smiley face stamped on their report while households using more than the average got a stern face instead, along with Web links to conservation tips tailored to their household.[2][3]


Meanwhile, the Southwest Florida Water Management District saw a 19% jump in homes practicing “skip a week” irrigation when it rolled out TV and radio ads that depict neighbours chatting about their conservation habits. [4]

Closer to home, SP Services has come up with a mobile app that allows users to compare their energy and water consumption against the average and most efficient consumption of their neighbours. [5]

SP Services

Will peer pressure, nudges and guilt tripping finally encourage people to use less water and kick-start widespread behavioural change? Only time will tell!


[1]: Ideas42

[2]: Wall Street Journal

[3]: LA Times

[4]: Mercury News

[5]: SP Services


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