It turns out that 18-30 year olds don’t understand much about their water consumption, this Australian Water Outlook by Arup for the Australian Water Association has found. Perhaps this is another consequence of the young dropping out of home ownership and renting instead.

An unfortunate knock-on effect of the increasing number of Australians renting is a decrease in the level of understanding about water being a precious resource to be used wisely. About two million Australian households now rent their home, a figure that has almost doubled in the past 30 years.

The issue is that water is not metered per apartment, unlike energy. It is calculated per household and if that household happens to be a block of flats, your usage is just not visible.

Our 18-30 demographic forms a significant proportion of this – more than ever its members are renting due to rising house prices. That, or they are still living at home with mum and dad.

Either way, they are not seeing their water usage by paying the bills. Our recent nationwide survey of Australians’ attitudes to water issues, alongside the Australian Water Association, showed that almost 30 per cent more 18-30 year olds than the 60+ age bracket had no knowledge at all of how their water bill had changed from the previous year.

Asked to describe the price of water at their usual residence 38 per cent of 18-30s did not know/were not sure, compared to only 10 per cent of the 60+.

How can we change this? How can we put water back on the agenda? Great strides have been made with respect to energy – its usage, cost and ways to use energy more efficiently. Energy, as a resource, is far more visible than water, with smart programs such as One Big Switch and smart metering. We need to get onboard with much of the same for water. Give consumers the technology that will enable them to monitor water usage in real time. Perhaps introduce peak and off peak charges for water too.

Surely it’s time to bring back the National Water Commission – or its present day equivalent. A federal water body with a focused, coordinated, national approach to water, to make sure we are taking water security seriously. It could call for the nationwide individual metering of units, similar to Sydney Water. In 2014 Sydney Water introduced new rules for the individual metering of units for most new multi-level buildings.

In periods of significant drought there have been some successful water saving programs but many of the younger generation won’t remember living through a drought. The survey reflects this, highlighting that younger generations are not aware of the challenge of water security.

During the Millennium drought the Victorian government teamed up with Melbourne metro water businesses and introduced Target 155. It was a voluntary water efficiency program to encourage metropolitan Melbourne householders to limit their consumption to 155 litres per person per day (roughly the equivalent of two average bath tubs).

It encouraged some simple and easy behaviour changes to encourage using water wisely. It linked to Melbourne Water which had all the latest water use and storage level data so you could compare your daily water use with the daily average. It made water “visible”. The question is, how can we effectively engage with young generations in this current non-drought environment? How can we make sure they are aware of the challenges of water security? A similar collaborative state government/water business approach is surely one way.

How to further engage 18-30s? Education and communication through channels appropriate to them. GenY/ the Millennial Generation often get unfairly knocked. How can they not understand the facts around the scarcity and importance of water to Australia’s economic and environmental future? But, currently, there is little in the form of state, local government or water industry-led education to help profile its importance. While progress is being made, I am not convinced that our current communication methods with 18-30s can be seen as effective. Mail-drops just don’t wash!

There’s an opportunity for the water industry to lead from the front foot, using digital technology that will communicate more effectively with this demographic.

Aside from those 18-30 year olds increasingly renting, what is further alarming to me, are the increasing numbers of Australians dropping out of home ownership and shifting back to renting. Research published by the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute found between 2001 and 2010 about 1.7 million Australians did so. Again, add those choosing rental apartments into the mix, and we have more Australians living in properties where they cannot see or manage their water use.

Water seems to be falling behind in terms of its visibility as a precious, national, resource. Certainly – if our research is anything to go by – for the 18-30 demographic. If the property market continues in its upward trend, we will see more renters of all sorts of demographic, and that unfortunately does not bode well for the future of water in Australia.

What will the numbers say in our survey next year? In five years, in 10? Unfortunately unless there is some form of federal government intervention, introduction of unit metering, take-up of smart meter technology, I cannot see the numbers changing. We need a National Water Commission. We need water meters. We need water security to be taken seriously, or it will be under threat. We are the driest continent on earth, surely when it comes to water, we should be the smartest.

Daniel Lambert is Australasia Water Leader, Arup

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