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The problem with citizen-oriented narratives for water shortages

“Every drop you save really is another drop more in your local river or reservoir”. These words from Thames Water dating from August 2022 are telling in terms of the citizen-oriented narrative often pursued by water management authorities in the UK and around the world, along the maxim ‘every little helps’. 

Water shortage - the lack of sufficient freshwater availability to fulfil population demand - is an urgent global matter, with an increasing number of regions facing severe water stress. In the famous planetary boundaries framework, the latest 2023 revision revealed that the freshwater boundary has exceeded the safe operating space for humanity.

By 2050, an estimated amount of 6 billion people will face water scarcity. This is largely due to a combination of factors, including population growth, urbanisation, climate change, and inefficient and irresponsible water usage.


Having established the case for the urgency of effective action for water security, in this article we will analyse the perverse incentives behind citizen-oriented narratives and how they divert the focus from systemic and integrated action to combat water shortages.


What is the problem with individual responsibility narratives for water shortages?


The maxim 'every little helps' suggests that small actions can be effective in addressing a larger problem and is often used to encourage people to take individual actions to reduce their household water consumption, hence adopting a citizen-oriented narrative. In 2018, when Cape Town faced the threat of taps running dry by ‘Day Zero’ following a severe drought in the region, citizen action allowed deferring the deadline set by the City Council by a couple of months. Between January 2015 and 2018, daily household water consumption decreased from 540 to 280 litres.


While this example shows that the power of individual action cannot be dismissed in the context of water shortages and the aversion of Day Zero was ultimately due to the sacrifice of inhabitants, it is only a part of the equation in assigning responsibility. Indeed, there are several issues with holding civil society accountable for the threat of water shortages.


  1. At the citizen level, individual actions are often slow and gradual and are not sufficient to address a problem as significant as water shortages. In the case of Cape Town, the most dramatic change in individual behaviour came about after media and citizen panic following the release of the ‘City’s Critical Water Shortages Disaster Plan’ over the restrictions and tariff increases that were in place. Hence, citizens are bound to respond more strongly to water crises rather than restrictions, consisting of a pitfall to targeting individual action over systemic change.

  2. Assigning responsibility to consumers for water shortages may also be counterproductive by creating a false sense of complacency. Individuals believing that their small actions are making a difference may be less likely to push for systemic change or support larger-scale solutions.

  3. The ‘every little helps’ narrative ignores that consumers often have little control and oversight over their water usage. About 40% of houses in the UK lack water metres. 

  4. Singling down the concept of water usage to household consumption is also flawed in the sense that water consumption is both determined by physical (i.e. domestic) and virtual consumption, the latter being dictated by the consumption of products from water-intensive industries, such as agriculture – in particular meat - and textiles. For example, 98% of the freshwater used for a Coca-Cola bottle is embedded in sourcing its ingredients and packaging, while 8,000 litres go into a cotton t-shirt.

  5. While individuals are responsible for their choices, their choices are determined by a governing agent and the information made available and salient to them, also known as bounded rationality

Effective citizen participation and accountability in water shortages, therefore, requires the empowerment of citizens to holistically engage with their water consumption. According to DEFRA, mandatory water-efficiency labelling for house appliances could already lead to reduced daily consumption of 31.5 litres per household in 25 years, let alone for all products. Hence, increasing transparency in terms of physical and virtual consumption of individuals would allow consumers to make informed decisions with a greater impact on the root causes rather than symptoms of issues.


What are the obstacles to systems-thinking from governing authorities leading to the overreliance on citizen-oriented narratives?


As seen so far, placing the burden of water shortages on consumers’ domestic water consumption can distract from addressing its underlying causes and considering the need for broader systemic changes, such as investing in infrastructure, improving agricultural practices, or promoting conservation.


The question then revolves around why this is a persisting strategy being followed. This can be answered in four parts, namely (1) time orientation, (2) governance structure,  (3) inefficient water valuations, and (4) industry materiality.


  1. Time orientation: Effective accountability systems are challenged by the short-termism of politicians due to their time-bound mandates,  next to a tendency from authorities to favour spending in times of emergency (e.g. Cape Town) rather than preventively, even though the latter is more cost-efficient. For example, the investment cost of resilience in the UK would revolve around £21bn, roughly half that of extreme drought.

  2. Governance structures:  Ineffective governance is characterised by management fragmentation, leading to water-related measures being implemented in an uncoordinated, haphazard manner, omitting synergies with other urban sectors and challenges. Management fragmentation is linked to water commodification and the resulting subjection of water to commercial criteria. For example, the privatisation of the water sector under the Thatcher government in the UK is to blame in part for the impending water crisis. Thames Water’s ownership structure is remarkably complex and has been described as ‘murky’ and ‘confusing’. It includes sovereign wealth funds of China and Abu Dhabi and its largest shareholder is the Canadian pension fund Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System. Such governance structures lead to a principal-agent problem, where shareholders motivated by profit may prioritise maximising returns over ensuring an adequate water supply for all. Privatisation of water may also lead to conflicts of interest leading to fewer investments in long-term infrastructure projects, such as building new reservoirs or reducing inefficiencies. Thames Water is estimated to have lost 600 million litres a day in 2021, while England as a whole suffers from a loss of 3 billion litres of water a day through leakages, amounting to a fifth of the total supplied. Hence, the commodification of water puts citizens in a disadvantaged position while being targeted by governmental awareness campaigns for reducing water use. An estimated 83% of the British public wants the renationalization of all water services.

  3. Water valuation: At its core, water shortages are caused by a flawed assessment of its inherent economic, social, and environmental value. Water does not abide by some of the basic rules of capitalism although being a finite and essential resource. Water-intensive industries hardly pay anything for its use, creating a reality where the true cost of water is not reflected in final products. Therefore, water is conceptualised and priced as if there is an endless supply of it in many areas of the world, leading to its use in wasteful ways. For example, 95% of farmland in the world is still irrigated by flooding fields. Pricing water according to the true cost of its use would incite governments to abandon the ‘every little helps’ narrative and shift economic priorities. 

  4. Industry materiality: The required mindset shift also revolves around reassessing the materiality (i.e. relative importance) of certain industries, considering the competition for water resources in a context of growing population and climate change. In the last century, water consumption has grown sevenfold. With the world’s population expected to grow by 2 billion in the next 30 years, there is a need to rethink water management in a way that accommodates the growing demand and decreasing supply for and of freshwater. For example, a fraction of the water used by the South African wine industry would be enough to run Cape Town’s taps. On the other hand, drinking, washing, and toilet flushing of citizens accounts for 8% of global freshwater use each year, while 70% of water is used in agriculture, essentially destined for cattle, and 22% for industry. Hence, competent authorities must reassess the benefits of certain industries for a country’s sustainable development.


Wrapping it up…

While small efforts must continue and can have influence, water shortage in its complexity requires much more significant action to address the problem effectively. The need to move from citizen-oriented narratives to systemic accountability systems has never been more important: while individual responsibility blaming narratives give the illusion of progress by dealing with water shortage symptoms – often too late and in a self-serving manner, accountability systems deal with root causes by assigning joint responsibility for issues early on. 

The way water shortages are defined ultimately determines how the issue is dealt with, stressing the need to recognize that water management is a multiscale issue that transcends borders and requires multi-stakeholder collaboration in establishing a balance between effective local and global action along the natural water cycle. 


Food for thought

I hope you enjoyed this article, and leave you with some questions for food for thought:

  • Are you aware of your country's water utility ownership structure?

  • How would a system where industries pay different water prices according to their materiality work? How can we divide between essential and non-essential water uses? 


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