The COVID policies and measures put into place have had a profound impact on society and day to day life. People spent more time at home and less time in their workplaces. Travel within and outside of the UK reduced. This has changed the way people use water. The location, types and drivers of water use has changed.
Between March and October 2020, water use in homes increased by between 9% and 13%. Water use in commercial properties and workplaces has decreased. Overall, the total demand has gone up by an estimate of 2.6%. This pattern is consistent, but the amount varies between regions.
When we look at area level data and samples of individual households, we see that patterns of water use have changed in the home. The expected diurnal patterns we see in water and energy have changed. We now see flatter usage patterns throughout the day, with fewer properties following the regimented behaviour we normally observe. People have more time to invest in water using activities throughout the day. Behaviours such as showering later in the day, cooking and cleaning activities are less time constrained.
In total, more water is used through the day in the home. There is anecdotal evidence of increased sanitation and hygiene, but this is difficult to separate from people simply spending more hours at home during the day. Consistently though, in all the data provided, household consumption is higher even where total demand of a geographical region may have dropped.
Weather has a big influence on household demand; with the increase in garden use dwarfing the increased consumption within home during hot and dry weather. Parts of summer 2020 were hot and dry, particularly May and June. Water companies expect this. Before the onset of COVID we are able to predict the relationship between weather and household demand very well. During COVID, there was a heightened response, over and above what we normally see. With children at home all week, people furloughed and older people shielding, this is not surprising. Welfare and entertainment outweigh water saving in a similar way to single use plastic vs hygiene during the pandemic.
The commercial sector saw some large reductions in water use. The hotel and restaurant sector saw water use reduce by about 70%. Sports and recreation centres reduced about 60%, and the education sector was impacted by school closures. Food production, utilities and health and social work were less impacted.
Water companies across England and Wales decided to collaborate. There are common themes, but also regional variation. The Environment Agency and water companies worked with us at Artesia to inform short term and long-term planning of water resources, as well as understanding the impacts on targets across these different water use types. The study used a range of water demand data covering the COVID period up to the end of October 2020. We used total demand at water resource zone level, water network demand data and anonymised consumption data from samples of households and commercial properties. It has been a deep dive into the data and evidence that water companies have collected during the pandemic. Timeseries modelling and prediction has enabled us to disentangle COVID impacts on consumption from the normal weather variations. Part of this study included a social science project with the University of Manchester.
As you would expect, the story is not simple. The net impact for a few areas is a decrease. Urban centres, such as London, saw a large reduction in commercial use as commuting hugely reduced. Furlough and lack of office working led people to vacate smaller city flats to more rural or suburban properties, sometimes cohabiting in larger groups with family. Water use is being relocated, especially in the areas surrounding London and the M4 corridor, where much higher net impacts are seen.
Using the historic data, we were able to predict how water use will change as we emerge from the pandemic, and potentially discover a new normal lifestyle. Water companies and the Environment Agency need to plan for the new normal, ensuring that demand can be met in all areas. The importance of resilience has been heightened, the warning signs of warm weather with many people at home shows the ability of behavioural and societal change to disrupt previously well understood and well managed precious resources.
As a technical consultancy Artesia have been providing data science services in the water sector since 2008. We combine extensive industry knowledge and data science skills to tackle current and future challenges in water resources, water conservation, demand forecasting, network and asset management. The full collaborative study report and the University of Manchester social science report can be found here in the COVID-19 folder.