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Embrace social complexities in water policy

August 26, 2016 | Environment News

The way we use water is shaped by social and cultural norms. And if you ask the average person why and how they use water, you will find interesting and varied responses, no doubt.

This is a vital point to consider when Singapore’s policymakers attempt to reduce and manage water consumption. From a historical perspective, the infrastructural landscape of modern societies has always co-evolved with social norms and cultural conventions linked to ways of using natural resources.

For example, taking baths and showers became widespread in the West only after the 19th century, due to socio-political movements that gave cities integrated piping networks. Simultaneously, washing oneself with water gradually became a sign of moral superiority and social status.

In Katherine Ashenburg’s book, The Dirt on Clean, she explains how our obsession with personal hygiene was promoted by various lobbying groups and associations, and those with commercial interests who had much to gain. Likewise, companies in health, personal care and fashion also contribute their share in shaping how people wash and clean themselves.

The proposal that the Government take these social conventions and day-to-day realities of water use into consideration when drafting policy is timely as we are given a look at Singapore’s sustainability credentials and its impressive water success story at the recent Singapore International Water Week.

Despite Singapore being precariously dependent on Malaysia for water, our four national taps and integrated water management have significantly enhanced water security today.

Our emphasis on technological innovation and infrastructural planning ensures an adequate and affordable supply. At the same time, various tax and pricing mechanisms help regulate demand and maintain the water infrastructure.

In this way, Singapore’s water policy reflects the primacy of engineering and economics as key policy tools.

By most measures, this approach to overcome supply scarcity by building a new water plant or increasing taxes has served the country well. However, there is a need to improve policies that manage demand because per-capita water consumption — declining since the 1990s — rose last year.

Yet, insofar as technocratic innovation and management prove effective, their success depends on picking the lowest-hanging fruits.

To substantially reduce water use, we need to look beyond the traditional disciplines and policy tools to get a more refined understanding of why and how people use water. Here are some suggestions.

First, we should see beyond the supply-demand distinction. Segmenting water policy into production (supply) and consumption (demand) may make analytical sense to engineers and economists. However, this false dichotomy between production and consumption ignores how infrastructure can influence and lock people into unsustainable ways of using water.

For instance, the codes and standards of everyday water systems such as our toilets require significant amounts of water to transport our waste away even if water-less alternatives are available.

Similarly, the rubbish chutes originally built into public housing units to maintain hygiene are now hindering recycling efforts.

By separating how water is produced and made available from how it is used, policymakers lose an analytical foothold that could result in a fundamental reorganisation of society. Being overly focused on technical efficiencies and “innovation”, they inevitably reinforce conventional paradigms of using water.

Secondly, social and cultural norms should be recognised. Going by statistics reported in TODAY in 2014, national water agency PUB said that the top three water-consuming activities at home are showers (29 per cent), dishwashing (22 per cent) and laundry (19 per cent). Consumption of water in homes makes up 45 per cent of daily usage, with the non-domestic sector taking up the rest.

Contemporary water policy assumes that people use water in “wrong” ways, so the role of policy is to “correct” such behaviour through education, incentives and moralising. For example, persuading people to take shorter showers, washing the dishes in a filled sink, or using the washing machine at full loads.

However, people behave according to what they believe “makes sense” to them. For instance, even though long showers waste water, people may not see it that way because long showers in the morning are refreshing or provide a form of relaxation after a long day. Or using the washing machine with less than a full load, because there is an unwashed outfit one wants to wear.

Similarly, when I interviewed Singaporeans for my honours thesis on household energy consumption two years ago, there was no such thing as “wrong” reasons to use electricity. Even though one respondent acknowledged that using the air-conditioner had high environmental and financial costs, she still preferred to use it because it provided a comfortable environment for her children to sleep in.

In trying to change people’s behaviour, policymakers have to consider the everyday experiences that guide how water is used, and how these norms were formed. While most policymakers live like everyone else, the assumptions behind the paradigm of “educate, incentivise, moralise” alienate people.

Environmental campaigns will not have a lasting effect because they do not resonate with people. To achieve a more human-centric water policy, planners need to leverage how people understand and use water in qualitative ways.

Japan did this with energy. In 2005, its government launched the Cool Biz campaign to reduce energy demand. By promoting a more casual office dress code for civil servants, offices would save on air-conditioning during the summer.

Not only did the Cabinet appear on television in casual office wear, but fashion companies also had a hand in changing what was culturally acceptable and desirable office wear. In 2012, the campaign helped Japan cut 2.2 million tonnes of carbon emissions.

Here in Singapore, to raise birth rates, the Government recognises that it needs to create conducive social environments that ease the many challenges mothers face. Similarly, recent efforts to promote a “car-lite” culture involve investing in infrastructures that would promote the usage of bicycles, walking and public transport, as well as initiatives to influence public attitudes on car ownership.

Why not do the same with water as well? Or electricity? Or waste, for that matter? To change how people use resources, we need to change what is deemed “normal” and “desirable” given our social, cultural and infrastructural environment rather than chiding or penalising people for acting in ways that “make sense” to them.

When policymakers understand how disparate aspects of society relate and influence each other, they will design better policy interventions. As a crucial first step, they need to invest more in acquiring sociological and anthropological knowledge apart from relying on economic and engineering expertise. For a Government that prides itself on long-term, strategic planning, its water policy cannot remain a purely technical affair.



EZRA HO is a research assistant at the Nanyang Technological University. He graduated from the NUS Environmental Studies programme.

UPDATED: 8:20 AM, AUGUST 23, 2016