Water stress and sustainability: what can we learn from history?

Vanessa Taylor and Frank Trentmann explore our past and present attitudes to water supply and entitlement


For how long has Britain experienced water stress?

Do you turn off the tap when brushing your teeth? Do you flush the toilet less often than you used to? Government and water companies are promoting ‘behaviour change’ in the face of ‘water stress’.


Summers are getting hotter and drier, we are told. In the 2006 drought, hosepipe bans affected 13 million people across southeast England. In areas with the lowest rainfall, water metering is becoming compulsory. Some point to climate change, bringing droughts here, floods there. Others blame private water companies.

Conflicts over water and drought, however, are nothing new. In Britain, they can be traced back to the 19th century, when piped urban networks were first widely introduced.

Thousands of Britons had access to constant water, and the use of WCs and fixed baths gradually expanded. However, so did consumers’ perceptions of needs and entitlements. Late Victorians held up ever-increasing water-use as a mark of civilisation.

This promised new world of plentiful water and clean bodies brought conflicts. Droughts and disruptions were widespread – no more so than in London where, in the 1890s, severe water shortages led to intermittent supply and hosepipe bans.

Consumers complained about water prices, quality and reliability of supply. They bemoaned ‘imaginary droughts’ and attacked water companies for not fixing leaks. The water companies responded by blaming users’ profligacy.

One result of such conflicts was the creation of Water Consumer Defence Leagues, which argued that public ownership would solve all the problems. Water was to be part of a new form of consumer-citizenship, based on universal rights to a basic need. As joint owners, consumers would use water responsibly.

Public ownership ‘triumphed’ in London in 1902 and, in doing so, created an imagined blueprint for sustainability.

What difference did public ownership of water make?

Public ownership proved an ambiguous triumph. Consumer behaviour has not varied much depending on whether water has been in private or public hands. The fact is, both drought and consumer waste have remained stubborn features of modern life. Liverpool, which municipalised early, had severe supply problems in the 1860s and 70s, and pioneered a waste detector to curb consumer demand.

There were droughts in 1921 and 1933–34, at the heyday of municipal ownership. These revealed the growing stress placed on water systems by the spread of cars and leisure facilities, such as golf courses. They also exposed the divide between city dwellers (who used 20 to 35 gallons a day) and rural users (five gallons).

Despite this disparity, water-saving messages in towns met with a mixed response. JJ Lawson, Durham’s Labour MP, declared in July 1934 that he had “seen nothing more pathetic… than the notices on the trams to use less water, when we have been taught for years to use more water as a rule of good health”.

By the 1950s many feared that affluence and the spread of the washing machine would see water consumption in Britain matching that of the United States (over 100 gallons a day). Such concerns were pounced upon by those championing the introduction of meters. For them, water was a finite commodity – with a price tag.

While government policy towards water usage has fluctuated over the past four decades, the spectre of water shortages has remained a constant. Three years after water was fully nationalised in 1973, Britain was struck by one of the most severe droughts of the century.

Privatisation, in 1989, was followed by a major drought in Yorkshire in 1995. In short, there has been one dominant model of behaviour during this period: expanding water use in the long run, punctuated by voluntary economies during droughts.

What does the future hold for water usage in Britain?

What is new today is the prospect of permanent and increasing water stress, together with a Government commitment to reduce future consumption. Per capita water consumption has increased by around 1 per cent a year since the 1930s, to a current level of 150 litres a day.

The new Government water strategy, Future Water, aims for a reduction to 120–130 litres by 2030. It appears that the days of water being widely regarded as a free gift of nature are numbered.

What does history teach us?

Droughts have been a recurring feature of modern life. Thirst for water has increased in both private and public settings. Despite consumers’ willingness to accept drought-time economies, consumption has continued to rise.

Climate change suggests that it is time to review the inherited idea that civilisation and expanding water-use go hand in hand. As citizens, consumers may have to accept limits to entitlement.

To win over the public, water companies and regulators will have to establish their legitimate role as co-partners in this battle. History shows that consumers are less willing to change their own behaviour when they see companies making profits while seeming to neglect leaks. Private companies need to be seen fighting their own waste. And Ofwat, the regulator, needs to enforce leakage targets effectively.

Yet the demands of conservation require the public to act too. The water industry increasingly recognises that the problem of water-use will not be solved just by addressing pipes and aggregate demand but also by consumers examining their own daily routines.

Domestic demand is rooted in long-standing practices and also in technologies for washing, heating, cooking, drinking and gardening. Only by changing these routines, and using more water-efficient appliances, can citizens reduce the amount of water they consume.

Tensions between suppliers and consumers are nothing new. In Sheffield in the 1880s, leading citizens formed a Bath Defence Association to challenge the water company’s extra bath rates. Yet conflict is far from inevitable: encouragingly, the 2006 drought saw a welcome new emphasis on consumer-provider collaboration.

The Government is right to focus on systems of water-use within the household through ‘green homes’ schemes. From 2009, building regulations will introduce new minimum standards for water efficiency in new housing. The Code for Sustainable Homes provides a rating system to measure the water and energy efficiency of new homes, though older housing stock presents more challenges.

Policy-makers should also recognise that consumers and citizens are not natural opposites – the one private and the other public-oriented. Consumers have never been market creatures alone, and proved as much by organising themselves as citizens in the droughts of the 1890s.

Research conducted by the Consumer Council for Water in the Severn Trent area indicated that consumers left without water during last year’s floods were less interested in water rate rebates than assurances that more money would be invested across the network to prevent further breakdowns.

However, if consumer-citizens are central to the solution, they are also complex and unpredictable. This has implications for the current emphasis on the meter as a financial incentive to saving water. Why? Well, seeing water as a commodity can run counter to environmental consumer-citizenship. Research carried out during the recent drought indicates that consumers who paid by rates were more willing to reduce consumption than those who paid by meter.

Today, concerns about the environment form the basis for a new conception of the public good. This new vision also needs to recognise that consumer-citizens are rooted in – and to some extent limited by – the material spaces in which they live, work and play.

Climate change and permanent water stress raise new questions about how much consumers will be entitled to in the future. The history of the controversy over consumer ‘rights’ and ‘waste’ is important to the current public debate on these entitlements.

Conflicts over water in the past reveal the limits of relying on short-term campaigns for voluntary sacrifice, but they also show the continuing power of water to rouse consumers as citizens. There is a lot of civic potential to be tapped by water companies, government and consumer groups alike.

Three lessons from history

1. Droughts have been a recurring feature of modern life, under both public and private ownership. Consumers have been willing to reduce consumption in times of drought, but they have steadily increased their water use at other times.

2. Consumers’ entitlement to increasing volumes of water is a long-standing feature of our ideas of civilisation and social progress in the UK. In the light of climate change, this needs to be revised.

3. In droughts over a century ago, people spoke up as citizens as well as consumers. To tackle our own challenge of permanent water stress, consumers must be engaged again as citizens.


Vanessa Taylor is a sessional history lecturer at Birkbeck College, University of London. Frank Trentmann is professor of history at Birbeck College, University of London