The motive for all resource use is, arguably, to achieve wellbeing, while excess consumption both increases inequalities, and, beyond a certain point, generally fails to increase wellbeing (Jackson 2009). Whereas much research has, for example, investigated consumption of energy resources and wellbeing, far less work has been carried out exploring the linkages between water use and wellbeing. The study reported here aims to start to fill this gap.
Individual wellbeing is a function of how people feel and operate on a personal and societal level together with an overall self-evaluation of a person's life (Michaelson, Mahony et al. 2012). Whereas well-being is based upon subjective experience, quality of life refers to the extent to which a person's life is desirable, often in relation to external factors such as income or environment (Diener 2005). The two terms are clearly closely related and often used interchangeably. Abdallah et al (2011) suggest that factors like income, employment status and housing which make up an individual's external conditions interact with personal resources such as health and self-esteem, and allow a person to function well as they interact with the world. It is the interaction of these factors which contribute to a person's sense of wellbeing.
It is reasonable to assume that low levels of domestic water consumption can have a significant and negative impact on perceived quality of life and wellbeing. While very basic needs can be met with as little as 20 litres per capita per day (lcd) (Howard and Bartram 2003), in high income countries domestic water consumption is much greater than this. In the US domestic water consumption is 375 lcd, although in some individual states consumption can exceed 700 lcd (Kenny, Barber et al. 2009). Within Europe water consumption falls between these extremes - in Germany it is around 120 lcd and in Britain around 140 lcd (Eurostat 2014). Reducing domestic water consumption is a frequent policy aim in the water sector, both as a short term means of dealing with drought but also as a means of reducing human impact on the environment. At the same time, improving quality of life and wellbeing is an explicit aim of many governments, including the EU (Eurofound 2012). While it is clear that extremely low levels of household water consumption significantly impacts on quality of life, whether there is any link between perceived quality of life and wellbeing and water use rates at higher levels of consumption is unclear. This paper assesses whether there is a link between household water consumption and the quality of life and wellbeing, based upon a household survey conducted in the south-east of England, UK.
A face-to-face survey of approximately 300 households in south-east England was carried out in the summer of 2014. The questionnaire was comprised of 33 questions relating to water use and well-being, environmental attitudes, and attitudes to water conservation and water reuse. Potential respondents were selected randomly on the high street but had to meet the criteria of being the person in charge of paying the household water bill (hence assumed to be more aware of consumption), being a home owner (so that their willingness to install saving fittings could be meaningfully assessed) and having a metered water supply. Following respondent consent, actual household water consumption data for each respondent were then released by the respondent's water company. Data were analysed using SPSS and Excel.
Results and discussion
Two-thirds of respondents thought that their water bill was either fair or cheap suggesting that for a majority of respondents financial concerns were not limiting water consumption. However, more than a quarter of respondents indicated positively for at least one indirect measure of poverty, such as being able to afford to adequately heat their home, and over half agreed or strongly agreed with the statement that they needed to save water to save money. Half of respondents had either installed water saving fittings since when they moved into their house or such fitting were already installed when they moved in, suggesting there is some concern for using water efficiently amongst a significant proportion of the population. However, approximately 40% agreed with the statement that unlimited water use was a basic human right, suggesting that a significant proportion of the population does not recognise the need to use water efficiently to protect the environment.
On a range of quality of life and well-being measures, there was a weak correlation with household water consumption data. However, there was considerable variation in levels of well-being expressed by respondents at any given level of water consumption, with a minority of respondents having relatively low levels of water consumption and a high sense of wellbeing. Other factors such as income, employment status or age had stronger correlations with quality of life and wellbeing than water consumption. For some respondents, high water use clearly contributed to their sense of well-being. More than 40% of respondents agreed with the statements that they enjoyed taking long showers or baths, and that the quality of the showing or bathing experience is more important than the volume of water used.
Inadequate access to water for meeting basic human needs clearly impacts upon quality of life and wellbeing. When the quantity of water which a household can access is not restricted, and the relative low economic cost of water does not significantly impinge on consumption, the relationship between quality of life and wellbeing and water use is more nuanced. While relatively low water consumption does not impact upon the quality of life and wellbeing of many households, high water consumption contributes to a higher sense of wellbeing in some other households. This has significant implications for water conservation campaigns by water authorities if societal goals to improve quality of life and wellbeing are to be implemented together with water use reduction goals as for some consumers the two sets of goals will be in direct conflict. Abdallah, S., et al. (2011). Measuring our progress: The power of well-being. London, New Economics Foundation.
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