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By Dr. Hari Haran Chandra

Have you wondered how other countries supply water, and what measures they take to govern water use? Here is an amazing case study of the UK’s water utilities.

It was on a volunteering stint at a forest range that he realized what it meant to not have water…having to lug river water half a kilometer uphill every day to cook and wash got him to see how much we take for granted this precious liquid. It got him started on building what today is a thriving movement across the UK called Save Water Save Money. Over 22 years of consistent pegging away, Tim Robertson, Founder and CEO, and his enterprise, GetWaterFit, has brought a unique approach to engaging citizens and offering tangible value to users, to water utilities in the UK, and to adding to the country’s effort to go low-carbon.

Mary Conley Eggert, the Founder and catalyst at the Illinois-based Global Water Works says, “It dawned on me that all of the surveys that WOW Action Forum (await the sequel to this feature in this space – Ed.) is securing, could in fact be tabulated with GWF’s digital architecture to saving water in households. Tim cares deeply about water, does what he says, and has a simple engagement tool that every city in the world could use. It will help any water-user know how much is current use, how much—and how could be saved, and how every water-user could be a better steward of water.”

Over an extended chat with some of India’s citizen leaders, Tim Robertson expanded on his model, “Sixteen years ago, we started out buying and selling lots of small products for water companies in the UK. We needed to hit water efficiency targets set by the regulator for every such water utility.”

Unlike in India where water is managed by the government, there are 11 regional water and wastewater companies and a further 6 ‘water-only’ companies in England and Wales. Many ‘customers’ as water-users get both water and sewerage services from one of these eleven companies – but some get their water from a water-only company. Tim chips in, “Over the long years we have distributed a number of products to 2.5 million customers. And yet, that’s barely seven percent of the number of households in the UK. “We have a long way to go,” he carries on. “Buying products is always subject to capital budgets for the water utilities who make our clientele today. So, business income swings between healthy highs and uncertain lows. We are a commercial business, not an arm of the government, or charity. So, six years ago we developed what is now called GetWaterFit. It’s a data management tool. It started out as a calculator, and has ended up being much more than that.”

The GetWaterFit website exhorts, “Find out how and where you use water in your home and discover easy ways to make savings. So, you can get – and stay – water fit.” Adds Tim, “It’s more of a customer-engagement tool. We have today about a million datasets of British households, with about 350,000 from last year alone.”

With moribund systems in India for water distribution that are run by government-owned water utilities, we have no understanding of how much is consumed by a home, and which sector consumes how much. Without such very basic data, it is impossible to plan.

Dr. Indrani Pal who is an Adjunct Professor and Faculty Advisor for Sustainability Management and Science at The Earth Institute in Columbia University, and a Water Scientist & Research Team Lead at The City University of New York, says in her excitement at the enormous potential India holds for such data collating, “There are nearly 193 million households in India and 290 million Facebook users (with a population closer to 1.38 billion). So, logically speaking, you can cover almost every household in India. It is absolutely possible!” The potential is enormous, as Indrani sees it. “Every household must ‘connect’ to their water. It is doable. Look what social media can do – are we still separated by 6 degrees? In a matter of 3 years this has come down to 2-3 degrees already!”

To go back to Tim: “So we are starting to engage high volumes of people. What was the starting point for us?” Happily, in the UK, water utilities want people to save water. People also want to make the effort, though they don’t know how. Says Tim, “As an organization specializing in the how’s of such water efficiency, my people need to know how every household uses water with each appliance, in order that we are able to offer solutions.” How do they go about it? Offers Tim, “Water utilities have been telling their customers not to run taps when brushing teeth. They send out messages to customers asking them to fix leaks in their faucets or use smarter water fixtures for their flush tanks or install showers that save water while not compromising comfort for the user. Most Utilities even send in plumbing professionals free of cost to a home that seeks such help. About half the consumers listen to these well-meant messages from the water companies. Many millions do not pay heed or don’t read. They are not aware. They need personalized communication that gets their attention.”

How has GetWaterFit found its relevance as a business? Says Tim, “Asking people to make a pledge isn’t enough, realize all water utilities. They need to do more. For example, a big washing powder brand in the UK spent over a million pounds to get less than 200,000 people on board on a mission to bring water efficiency in homes. After that big spend, they still had no way of measuring how many people actually saved. We stepped in to see what we can do to close that gap. In a campaign that had us reach out to hundreds of thousands of water users, we took people through a series of questions. We continue to do that with various campaigns across utilities and across geographies. We help them understand what they need to do to make small steps to save water.”

So, what is the framework Tim’s company has built? It is a platform that is simple in construct, and user-friendly. Pitches in Tim, “Well, it helps us get data on as many little things people do at home, on use of water and energy. We know how many people live in any home. We digitize their use of gas (for heating homes) or of their use of electricity. It helps us aggregate data in a way that we can report on energy, or water saved. The questions we raise and the responses we get, help us to know about devices they use at home, their consumption levels, and the little things they can do to save.”

All of the data from these questions is hosted on a dashboard. “It is so granular that we get to even knowing how many times the household has used the shower, and for how long at an average. Let’s say a customer fills in on the questionnaire that she has an old single-flush tank, our backend algorithm works out water flow. If someone says we have a leaking toilet we can offer an insight into how bad the leak is,” he adds.

What is even more interesting is that over 70% of people in the UK answer on their mobile phones. Says Tim, “It’s one question per screen, so you can slide across quite easily.”

Is this a process and system that can be replicated elsewhere in other cities elsewhere? “We could do it anywhere, now that we have proven scale and effectiveness of such measuring across segments and water utilities in the UK. Depending on the profile of households, and the country and culture that needs such a system of data gathering, we can frame the questions, change the formula and algorithm backend to reflect local use. What we need is willingness from the utility, and of course customers wanting to be guided on how to save both water and money. This can extend to energy use profiling, too.”

What is interesting is that in all the territories Tim’s company works in, in collaboration with the utilities (who are his clients as a B2B business), people actually put their email address in, so we can later chat them on water efficiency, and counsel them. “The effort,” says Tim, “is to get people to opt-in first, and to receive information. It is amazing that 75 percent do so.”

He goes on, “I must say we have a very committed, engaged audience in water-saving out here in the UK. And we do our bit to enhance the quality of the experience in our interactions. We present a series of graphs and charts that allows them to understand how many liters the home currently uses, and how much the home could potentially save. It even helps the user to flip between the cost and use of water…well, money is a motivating factor, not just liters saved, as we know.”

This breaks down into how a user can compare the home’s water efficiency with that of others in the area the water company serves, and in the neighborhood of the home in question. “My data sheets help me see, by the type of appliance used, what and where I can save the most.” If, say, the toilet use shows 250 liters per person, we tell them what they can do to bring that down. If they report a leak, and there’s only one person living in the house, “I could click on ‘fix my leaks’, and once the water utility sends in a person—at no cost to the household most times—the householder needs to confirm that it’s been fixed.”

Says Tim, “It’s more like a game. I can choose a number of ‘easy wins’. These easy wins add up. For example, if I was running the tap when I was brushing my teeth, and I turn off the tap, I can save 12 liters per person per day. I start ‘playing’ now, and I come back tomorrow. I have to come back over 2 successive days to complete this.” And the saving continues, with little as further intervention. Back on the algorithm-based dashboard at the company’s end, it shows up. “And we report the saving to the utility. As a user at any home, I know that if I can do this by using the tap smartly, I can do this for a number of other things as well.” And so ‘the game’ gets addictive, interesting.

What is staggering is that Tim’s company now has about 380,000 datasets. The dashboards at the company show that customers save approximately 1000 liters a week. That’s 380 million liters a day, or a staggering 140 billion liters a year saved for the utilities. The saving in money, in energy that is consumed to haul and distribute water, and the carbon reduction for the utilities as well as for the UK economy is large in magnitude.

“The consumer, on the utility bills for water and for energy (to heat water), saves 25 pounds a month. Post the Ukraine war, energy bills in the UK have shot up, and so getting people to save on their energy bill helps them a great deal,” says Tim.

GetWaterFit has turned the effort from a reporting platform into a marketing campaign dashboard. It allows Tim’s organization to see how much people are saving by completing the ‘easy wins’, and what the potential saving is. “We have learned that simply reporting facts is not enough. The dashboard gives us something to actually act on—and that has made a big difference to where we are at the moment,” he reflects.

Into the next phase, says Tim, the company is reaching out to private business, to encourage them to come in and support Get Water Fit in areas where we don’t work with the water utilities. Why should they work with Tim’s outfit? What does a business get out of it? It’s about helping their customers beat the big surge in energy and water bills since the outbreak of the Ukraine conflict. “The logic is obvious,” says Tim. “If these companies with our support help their customers with their bills, these water-users are more likely to come back and continue to buy that company’s products with the extra cash in their hands.”

It’s also about being seen to be helping customers know that such a company cares, that it seeks to help the user, and that it is aligned to the larger vision of reducing carbon and greenhouse gas emissions. Continues Tim, “We’re starting to see energy companies and large construction companies wanting to be associated with us. They get access to the data that we have, and their social media professionals tell their markets that the company is part of the low-carbon movement. It helps put a human face to the company’s business.”

What is next in store on such an amazing journey that the water utilities partner for Tim? “We are soon to launch a set of stores. When customers complete say three easy-win actions, they can walk into the shop and unlock discounts on products that are cheaper than if they come in through online purchases. They could pick it off the shelf. It helps us complete the cycle on the customer experience: it serves as an incentive to get people coming in from the Internet to go first to GetWaterFit to save water at home, and then to win savings on further buys.”

All this sounds like a pipedream in a behemoth like India that is struggling to secure basic management efficiencies in water utilities across every city. The voices in the wilderness that a WOW Action Forum or a few other such organizations working from outside the government to bring the little as impact they can, is not going to help, unless we have a narrative that is as complete as the one in the UK is, if we go by Tim’s growth story.

In the sequel to this narrative, we will explore the scenario in India, and what we could perhaps do to stir some action from citizens and from the private sector which sees the need for some of these advantages to be cashed in on. Implicit in what Indrani Pal says, is an acceptance that we have to do things from outside of the government, since the government and its utilities won’t go beyond platitudes and proclamations.

This blog is the first post in the two-part series on ‘UK’s Water Utilities’ authored by Mr. Hari Haran Chandra. Click here to read Part-2. 

About the Author

Dr. Hari Haran Chandra is a Trustee at INHAF, Prem Jain Memorial Trust, AltTech Foundation; and a Senior Fellow at the Indian Green Building Council.

WOW AF is a multi-city citizen-led initiative now in action in four Indian cities of Bengaluru, Chennai, Trichy, and Hyderabad; and moving soon to four more cities in the country, and is led by water experts and citizen leaders who seek to bring water efficiency with water-users adopting solutions to meet a Mission Target of Saving 3000 Crore Liters in these cities.

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