Investigating Public Engagement in Water Utilities

I thought it would be a great idea to pitch my research to readers, especially since I’m having my first year defense tomorrow and will have to explain why I think I am fit to proceed into my second year of PhD research although for this, I will be giving a rather short pitch. I may write about this experience another time…

I mentioned earlier in my first blog post that I am conducting my research in collaboration with the International Water Association (IWA). The IWA has a Public and Customer Communication Specialist Group (IWA PCCSG) which has played a key role in my research so far including providing industry links, and insights that have fed into my work. IWA PCCSG is an active proponent for hinging successful water management on stakeholder engagement, and the relevance of this group’s involvement in my study becomes clearer when you learn a bit more about my PhD research.

Water is such a unique commodity, yet so ‘fabricated’ into our everyday lives that not many people stop to think about the very important issues that threaten the thrift of water. Similarly, even the institutions managing water have not quite figured out robust ways to motivate people to stop, think and take action on reducing water demand. As far as 100BC (see 1), water issues were addressed using inflexible technological measures. This is not surprising when one considers that in centuries past, pertinent water issues revolved round supply and sanitation. Nevertheless, despite action being taken by some utilities to be adaptive in their water management approach, some rigid practices are still prevalent in water utilities today.

The world is rapidly changing and so are our water problems. Uncertainties tied to climate change and increasing population are proving the impact of these inflexible technological controls inadequate to tackle the issue of increasing water demand. In a water wise world, several water professionals (see 2 and 3) have thus recommended that the water sector becomes adaptive (operate differently and flexibly) in order to tackle the challenges of modern water; and public engagement is being promoted as one avenue for adaptation. People need to be put at the centre of water matters in a way that positions them as citizens who own water and are involved in making water decisions.

Several studies exist explaining the public’s behavioural and practical response to engagement initiated by water utilities. However, what is lacking in the literature is an understanding of the role that water utilities play to maximize water communications (i.e. foster engagement) in a manner that motivates the public to take actions that bring about change. In addition, it is rather unclear who water utilities consider as their publics (are they just bill-paying customers or do they include local citizens?). Many have also critiqued impact of public engagement as having no empirical evidence – a very valid judgment considering that advocating for an alternative approach should also include a proper demonstration of how the results produced by the approach!

In view of the global water demand issue, it is necessary to explore how water utilities are engaging the public on water issues, including how the impact of these engagement activities are measured.

So yes, people have a role to play in the conservation of water but what are water utilities doing to make sure people are better positioned to play their role?  This is what my research is about.

It is important to note that water conservation is not just about reducing water use. Water conservation revolves around every policy, managerial measure, or user practice that aims to preserve water and its quality (see 4). Looking away from the responsibility being placed on the public to conserve water, I am interested in understanding the responsibilities that water utilities have taken on. The focus of my research is therefore on finding out if utilities are exploiting social actors, message content, and various channels of communication in order to actively engage the public. In fact, these three dimensions are the bedrock of the conceptual model I’ve developed for my research.

If utilities are taking advantage of these dimensions, then how are these being exploited? For example, how is the public perceived – as buyers of water or as citizens who own water; how are water messages framed – under the ‘umbrella’ of increasing water rates or through the ‘lens’ of local contextual problems; and how are people engaged – through fine prints on water bills or in consultation events?

If we understand how public actors are perceived, how target water messages are constructed, and the numerous channels through which they are being engaged, then the ideal question to ask is ‘why are these elements of communication being ‘boxed’ in those ways’? For example, are people more likely to conserve water when their money is at stake or are people more likely to come together when there is a local problem they can identify with e.g. drought in the region or problems with the local river?’ The essence of asking these ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions is to understand how actions and interactions vary in different utilities and how these are shaped by their perception of water and of the public. There are more alternative communication channels used by water utilities, and so are the ‘frames’ through which water utilities present their water messages. These mentioned herein are few examples.

The way that water communication is constructed and reconstructed is therefore linked to a wider subject which I am examining – the public engagement approaches. Without overwhelming you with the jargon, I am exploring the public engagement approaches appealing to individual and communal interests, and using the conceptual model developed for my research, I am looking at the various ways that water utilities position themselves as adaptive and non-adaptive within these two approaches. For example, a water utility which engages the public on water demand issues by encouraging them to reduce their water use in order to save money on their water bills may be attempting to appeal to appeal to the individual interest of the customers. In contrast, a water utility which engages the public on water demand issues by educating them on the importance of protecting water and the environment may be attempting to appeal to the communal interest of the customers.

To do this, I am looking to work with a number of water utilities in different countries – administering surveys, examining engagement messages on their websites and conducting extensive interviews with some of their staff. This will be aimed at understanding their perception, organizational culture and practices in relation to public engagement on water demand.

At this point, I’m actively seeking contacts in water utilities and any volunteers for participation or referrals would be really helpful!


  1. Dooge, J. (2009) Fresh Surface Water. Oxford: EOLSS Publishers/ UNESCO.
  2. Kampragou, E., Lekkas, D., and Assimacopoulos, D. (2011) ‘Water Demand Management: Implementation Principles and Indicative Case Studies’. Water and Environment Journal, 25 (4), 466-476.
  3. Mirza, M., and Mustafa, D., (2016) ‘Access, Equity and Hazards: Highlighting a Socially Just and Ecologically Resilient Perspective on Water Resources’. Sustainable Development and Disaster Risk Reduction, 143-159.
  4. Pereira, L., Cordery, I., and Iacovides, I. (2012). ‘Improved Indicators of Water Use Performance and Productivity for Sustainable Water Conservation and Saving’. Agricultural Water Management, 108, 39-51.

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