Demand-Side Aspects of Urban Water ⁄ Wastewater Systems
Willingness to Pay and Willingness to Conserve

By G. Venkatesh
August 2009

The Author is a PhD Researcher at the Department of Hydraulic and Environmental Engineering, Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), in Trondheim, Norway.

Sustainability would be like a tripod on two legs, if the social aspect is ignored. Demand-side management of urban water-wastewater networks is as vital as (and often necessary for) optimising the expenses on operating and maintaining the same and mitigating the adverse environmental impacts resulting therefrom. This paper is based on an e-mail survey carried out to find out what consumers feel could be their role in and contribution to working towards sustainability of water-wastewater networks. The sample size was small but diverse in terms of nationality, city of residence, professional background and age. Even among the small number of people who responded to the questionnaire, there is tremendous diversity of opinions. The survey was restrictive in many ways, but can serve as a platform for more surveys which the authors intend to carry out in the future.

Keywords: Conservation, Demand-side management, Reuse, Sustainability, Water supply, Willingness to pay

Introduction and Literature Review

Water, no doubt, is a basic human need. Often it is taken for granted by consumers who deem it their right to get access to clean water. Most people are only vaguely aware of the consumption of the energy and materials associated with water treatment, pumping and wastewater treatment downstream in urban water-wastewater networks. Energy consumption in the water cycle indirectly contributes to global warming, while materials consumption may lead to abiotic depletion of resources. Water cuts are sources of ire and frustration and oftentimes, the challenges shouldered by the city/town authorities go unheeded. Certain practices have been so firmly entrenched in human society that bringing about a change is far from easy. Nations have gone to war over water in the past and may do so in the future if water resources are not wisely managed. The indispensability of water and the sheer range of applications it is put to makes conservation a necessity and scarcity and supply-unreliability a grave concern. On the demand-side, it behoves consumers to support cash-strapped municipalities in efficiency improvement plans by being willing to pay a little more and at the same time contribute to water conservation and lesser stress on water, energy and material resources by taking the initiative to consciously reduce consumption, retrofit the plumbing in their houses to accomplish reuse by cascade, harvesting rainwater etc.

The technical and economic aspects are strongly embedded in social and cultural dimensions and cannot be treated in isolation (Zerah, 2007). Challenges due to development of urban centres – especially great urban agglomerations in developing countries are huge and water is a key figure in this equation, according to Varis, et al (1997). The fact that the referred-to paper is 12 years old at the time of writing indicates that researchers had started thinking on the lines of sustainability of urban water infrastructures in the last century itself.

When it comes to individual and governmental initiatives to conserve water and break the mould, so to say, Maher, et al (2003), while stressing on the need for “Water-Sensitive Urban Design” makes a mention of the fact that 3 million Australians use rainwater from tanks for drinking without suffering from any health problems whatsoever. The same paper also gives the example of a three-storey office building in Canada which cut down its water demand from the municipal supply by a staggering 90 per cent by resorting to rainwater harvesting, composting toilets and grey-water reuse. Harremoes (1998), states that it is a key issue that water usage can be diminished by demand control. Icke, et al (1999) states that there are possibilities to collect grey water from the wash basins and bathrooms in a grey-water tank and use the same for toilet-flushing; and also install a rainwater tank to feed applications like washing clothes, gardening and car-washing. In de Jong, et al (1995) it is stated that if solutions are to be found to overcome socio-political bottlenecks that exist, it is mandatory that a broad social awareness of the choices of the past and the necessity of radical changes in the future, should be created. The paper asserts that unless the society on the whole realises the importance of water, no headway can be made on the road to sustainability of urban water networks. Old habits die hard; as Gram-Hannsen (2007) for instance, dwells on the difficulties associated with striking a balance between physical hygiene and cleanliness on the one hand, and the consumption of water to attain to the same on the other. The paper points to cases where teenagers (in Denmark in this study) under the influence of peers and driven by the need to socialise and be accepted in friend circles, are obsessed with cleanliness and end up consuming a lot of water in the process. Cheng (2002) and Zerah (2007) attribute the lack of seriousness as regards water conservation to the fact that water is quite cheap in many parts of the world (the said papers are case studies of Taiwan and India respectively). Of course, when something is almost gratis, there is no initiative or drive to conserve it. Periods of scarcity and drought may change the way of thinking of city-dwellers momentarily, yet, it is often seen that the onus is thrown back on the city authorities which operate and manage the water-wastewater networks. Gascon, et al (2004) state that strategies followed by managers and politicians in Spain have been mainly focused on the supply side of water management, whereas practices from the demand side have been systematically neglected over the years. The paper however also adds that both utilities and citizens have now realised that future trends in water supply will lie in water conservation programmes and retrofitting of facilities. Stedman (2009) quotes Gustaf Olsson, professor emeritus at Lund University in Sweden “The problem I see is that almost everyone is aware of how much they pay per kilowatt-hour for energy and no one is aware of how much they pay for water. It is taken for granted.” Paul Reiter, the Executive Director of the International Water Association observes in the June 2009 issue of the Water21 magazine that seventy per cent of the energy consumption in the water cycle is tied up in the uses of water (mostly heating); and contends that if utilities would like to think of reducing energy usage in the water and sanitation networks, they need to focus on the customers. It has however been seen, as Nistor (2008) writes about the situation in Moldova, that household consumption behaviour has been significantly affected by a rise in prices accompanied by the adoption of water meters. Between 1996 and 2006, the average per connection daily (pcd) consumption in Moldovan households dropped from a high of 328 litres pcd to 110 litres pcd.

Development of new water resources is investment-intensive, and so is the maintenance of pipelines in order to reduce leakages and thefts and ensure that those who pay for the services are promptly serviced. With assets in the water and wastewater sector in cities around the world getting older, the operation and maintenance expenses keep mounting (Ugarelli, et al, 2008). To serve the people better, the municipalities are in need of more finances. Subsidies will not help for too long and loans from lending institutions are unaffordable most of the time (Zerah, 2007). The municipalities will have to turn to the people for help. Raising the price of water for consumers across all strata of society will create unrest among the lower strata, which form a significant percentage of populations in cities of the developing world. Subsidising the poor and charging the rich may also not be a popular move in such cities. Singhirunnusorn, et al (2009) is of the view that the ability-to-pay is a very important issue, reflecting the reasonable levels of service that the consumers are able to pay for. Charging every individual household on a per-unit-volume-consumed basis (akin to how it is done for electricity consumption for instance) will be a better strategy if that could be achieved by installing automated tamper-proof water meters, remotely controlled and read by the utilities. Fixed monthly payments do not give any incentive for savings. Citizens who understand the importance of water end up being overcharged and unconsciously subsidise those who over-consume. As Zerah, et al (2007) points out, in countries like India, industries pay much more for the water they consume vis-à-vis households. The gap between these two groups of consumers should be narrowed.

In many parts of the world, especially in the developing world, people are sceptical of paying more for services which they have gotten used to receiving cheaply, owing to distrust of the integrity of the officials in charge of public services. Yet, they do not wish to be deprived of that very basic requirement of theirs – water; and its associate, sanitation. If the people would like to have their way, they had better resort to conserving water and reducing their dependence on the municipal water supply as much as they can.

Kolokytha, et al (2002) presents the results of a survey of over 2700 households to gauge what the citizens had to say about several aspects related to municipal water supply, carried out in the Greek city of Thessaloniki. Willingness to pay and willingness to conserve are thus the qualitative variables which need to be studied in order to determine the degree of awareness, cooperation and concern on the part of society (the consumers who avail of water-wastewater services). Sustainability is not merely a governmental responsibility. It works better when it is bottom-up and boosted by the cooperation of all individuals in society.


In Kolokytha, et al (2002), there were two things which the respondents had in common – their city of residence and their dependence on the municipal water supply. The respondents of the survey conducted for this paper basically had just one thing in common – their dependence on and sensitivity to municipal water supply.

They belonged to different nationalities and were based in different cities around the world. As de Jong, et al (1995) observed years ago, the country of origin has no bearing on the central point – our relationship with water has reached a turning point. What was true in 1995 is truer in 2009. All of them know, and are known to, at least one of the corresponding authors. All of them are residents of urban societies around the world, are well-educated and have access to the Internet. They are all well-to-do and members of the middle and upper-middle class of urban society, pay for their water and sanitation services, and are in general, aware citizens. The Internet connectivity and personal acquaintance factors facilitated the informal survey over e-mail. Unlike Kolokytha, et al (2002), the authors worked with a relatively smaller sample. The questionnaire was despatched by e-mail to over 200 potential respondents, across four continents. One of the limitations of the sampling is the exclusion (or rather the inability to include) of respondents from South America and Africa from the sample. The other is the fact that the lower strata of society (slum dwellers), which constitute a significant proportion of urban populations in many developing countries, has not been represented in the sample. It goes without saying that the views and opinions of the lower strata of society matters as much as those of the upwardly-mobile classes. The questionnaire circulated has been reproduced hereunder:

The respondents were also requested to indicate their city of residence, nationality, age and profession. The authors realised that it would be better to keep the questionnaire as short as possible, bearing in mind the possibility that the request would be turned down by some of the respondents. Responses ranging from a mono-verbal “Yes” and “No” to detailed explanations and justifications were expected. The subject matter is chiefly water supply and conservation (and also the willingness to pay). Sanitation and wastewater treatment have been touched upon in the last two questions, though these are possible subjects the authors intend to dwell upon in detail in a subsequent survey.

The subjectivity of opinions to varying conditions of hydrology, economic development and degrees of awareness that obtain around the world was certainly not overlooked. Probability sampling was followed – each individual respondent was assumed to be equally sensitive to water supply (quality and reliability) issues. As Varis, et al (1997) states (and of course, quite obviously as well), safe drinking water and proper sanitation are concrete issues to every individual. In effect, the respondents were expressing their opinions on the water supply services prevailing in their respective cities of residence – thereby, similar and not the same services. Individual preferences vary for sure, as expectations differ across the whole spectrum of urban denizens. “Good” and “better” are relative terms, determined by what has been experienced in the past – how something was earlier, or how something was/is elsewhere. One cannot, obviously, on the basis of the limited number of responses (subjective at that) present a general global outlook. However, the results can serve as a platform for more extensive surveys – in depth and width, scope and size.

Results and Discussions

Responses were received from about 50 individuals characterised as in Figures 1,2 and 3. The distribution among age-groups is very much uniform and thus accounts for views of youngsters of the current generation, middle-aged individuals as well as senior citizens, who have witnessed the changes in services over time. The respondents come from several walks of life (by no means inclusive of all professions and occupations however), and hail from 15 different countries. It should be mentioned however that the cities of residence are much more in number – 24 in all. These include Oxford and Birmingham (UK), Trondheim(Norway), Singapore (Singapore), Sydney (Australia), Vadodara, Mumbai, New Delhi, Kolkata, Jullunder, Noida, Gurgaon, Ahmedabad, Bangalore (all 9 from India), Raleigh, Colts Neck, New York and Beaverton (all from the USA), Chongqing (China), Seoul (South Korea), Berlin (Germany), Tsukaba (Japan), Stockholm (Sweden) and Lyngby (Denmark). Indians account for a significant percentage of the respondents, as not only were more of them contacted in the first place, but a greater percentage of those contacted, responded to the questionnaire. It must be mentioned however, that a good percentage of the Indians reside and work in cities outside India and hence have commented about the services in those cities. The male-female ratio among the respondents is 3:2, thus avoiding any kind of gender bias. The results are discussed question by question hereunder:

Conclusions and Further Work

Knowing what people think and are willing to do is just a first step. It is of course much better than totally abstaining from attempting to find out what their needs, opinions, demands and complaints are. As Buch, et al (2009) say, management must come down to the ground and decide on things after knowing the realities. As van de Meene, et al (2009) point out, capacity building in sustainable urban water management includes mobilising community support. Governments which have sustainable development on their agenda need the support of the people to accomplish steady economic growth without compromising environmental upkeep. As Foxon, et al (1999) said a decade ago, as individuals, academics an policy makers gain a better understanding of people”s wants and needs, and of the system-wide effects arising from end-use demands, we can move towards developing more sustainable cities and societies. However, knowing what people think does not yield a silver bullet solution to the challenges faced by society and government. Often, public policy is aimed at satisfying the majority even if that would annoy the minority. There is sadly no perfect via media. A referendum however is a very good starting point. Misgivings, non-cooperation and suspicions can be healed if one can ascertain that they exist. Also, as Beck, et al (1996) wrote over a decade ago, “ While (urban water and wastewater utilities) will be able to do more of what is presently being done, more reliably and more efficiently – with less consumption of energy (and materials perhaps); it is only too apparent that what we do now may not be what we should be doing.” The reference of course was not just to the need for integrated approaches to water supply and sanitation, but also the need for water saving strategies – reuse of treated wastewater, cascade within households, rainwater harvesting etc. The said paper also refers to “engines of materials manipulation (the consumers and dischargers of water in other words) sitting at the mouths of sewer pipelines”, which could bring about a paradigm shift in the urban water and sanitation networks.

Several insights have been gathered from this survey and the main ones can be listed hereunder:

This paper has its own limitations

The authors intend to narrow down the focus and study the responses in selected cities; and also expand the sample sizes. The results of such a survey would be of interest to the municipalities in the said cities, in case they have not carried out surveys of this kind to determine the opinions and viewpoints of the consumers they serve. In a developing world context, this will enable the governments which take over the reins of administration in cities to pursue developmental programmes with a well-defined agenda bolstered by complete knowledge of what ails the electorate.


To all the respondents who found time to respond to the questionnaire. The responses were obtained on the promise of anonymity and hence, the names are not being revealed. There however are references to the nationalities / cities of residence of some of the respondents in the paper.

List of figures



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