Every drop counts – making a case for water conservation in Ireland

  • 23 January 2023
  • Assistant Professor Sarah Cotterill
  • Educational, Environmental, Political, Social


In recent years, Ireland has experienced water supply shortages, and they are forecast to become more frequent. To address this, Dr Sarah Cotterill’s research explored how Ireland can conserve water, and the benefits of doing so. Based on her findings, Dr Cotterill produced a policy brief for An Fóram Uisce (the Water Forum) including ten clear recommendations – around technology, regulation and education – on how domestic water conservation measures could be implemented in Ireland. Through a programme of outreach, including policy workshops and media appearances, Dr Cotterill is working to ensure these recommendations are translated into policy, so that we can save water and protect the environment.

Research description

Ireland’s water availability is under pressure from population growth and climate change. The areas with the lowest rainfall are also the most densely populated, exacerbating the issue. Irish Water, the national water utility, reported that 60% of their water supply systems are typically under pressure, and more still when there's a drought.

This prompted An Fóram Uisce – “The Water Forum”, a statutory body formed to facilitate stakeholder engagement and debate on issues relating to water – to fund a programme of research on domestic water conservation in 2021. Awarded funding under this scheme, Dr Sarah Cotterill’s research sought to review available water-conservation technologies, summarise relevant national and EU legislation, explore how to implement water efficiency labelling, and outline ways to incentivise water conservation measures.

Through this review of academic and policy literature, Dr Cotterill found that saving water yields a range of environmental, economic and wider societal benefits. For example, reducing water use would reduce the volume of wastewater discharged from a property, helping to mitigate capacity issues and sewer overflows. The research showed that a fifth of the energy used in Irish homes is used for heating water, and that a small reduction in water use could lead to significantly lower greenhouse gas emissions, if scaled up across all Irish homes.

Dr Cotterill also found that the average water use in Ireland (of 133 litres per person per day) is 20-30% higher than in similar EU countries, like Belgium and Denmark. However, homeowners often don’t know how much water they’re using, and the gulf between those who use the most and the least water is larger than for any other utility. Technology – like low-flow taps and showers, smart meters, and rainwater harvesting – could enable substantial water saving, but only when used alongside a sustained and consistent programme of education, and with regulatory drivers to incentivise uptake of these technologies.

Based on her findings, Dr Cotterill developed ten recommendations to strengthen regulation and policy, to facilitate agencies to engage, and to improve public awareness of water conservation. These recommendations – which include steps like updating building regulations and introducing smart metering – are presented in a policy brief on An Fóram Uisce’s website, alongside the research report (for which she received the 2022 NovaUCD Consultancy of the Year Award).

Dr Cotterill presented her key recommendations to An Fóram Uisce's Plenary Committee, where members commented that the report was "practical and pragmatic", "comprehensive" and "concisely crafted".

Research team and collaborators

The report and policy brief were drafted by Dr Sarah Cotterill, with some technical input from Dr Peter Melville-Shreeve at the University of Exeter. The report was reviewed by An Fóram Uisce's Research Lead, Dr Triona McGrath, their Communications and Education Lead, Dr Gretta McCarron, and their Senior Executive Officer, Donal Purcell. Triona, Gretta and Donal were also involved in the delivery of the workshop and were one of the sponsors of the Eco Eye episode.


The work was funded in 2021 by an open Research Call from An Fóram Uisce (the Water Forum), to develop "A Framework for Improving Domestic Water Conservation in Ireland".

Research impact

The research and resulting policy brief, produced for An Fóram Uisce, has the potential for political, educational, environmental and social impact.

Political impact

Dr Cotterill has taken several steps to ensure the policy recommendations arising from her research will be implemented. The policy brief has been circulated by An Fóram Uisce to its members, presented to several of their committees, and highlighted in Waterwise’s monthly newsletter. She is also delivering multi-stakeholder workshops to discuss opportunities and challenges for implementing the report’s recommendations. These are attended by representatives from Irish Water, the Irish Green Building Council, the National Federation of Group Water Schemes, Building Standards, and the Department for Housing, Local Government and Heritage (amongst others).

A report of the first workshop, which took place in June 2022, is available on An Fóram Uisce’s website. During this event, attendees considered three policy recommendations: a mandatory, Government-led water labelling scheme; a smart metering trial; and revisions to building regulations to specify total water use per building and maximum ratings for fixtures and fittings.

Dr Cotterill continues to work with An Fóram Uisce to develop a Strategy on Water Conservation, informed by her research and legislative recommendations, to present to policymakers within Government (e.g. in the Department for Housing, Local Government and Heritage).

Educational impact

One of Dr Cotterill’s recommendations was to establish a national water conservation team, likely within An Fóram Uisce, which would contribute to training, knowledge transfer and capacity building within and across agencies and partners responsible for water. A step toward achieving this was taken in the first workshop, which enabled stakeholders to engage with the issue of water conservation in a more holistic, systems-thinking way.

A second workshop, in March 2023, will focus on the educational recommendations made in the policy brief, such as developing an approach to create a more comprehensive understanding of water processes and systems within the national curriculum. Attendees will work together to develop a programme of education to address systemic barriers in understanding about water.

Having published her report, Dr Cotterill was invited to speak to students and teachers at Bridgetown College in Wexford, as part of the school’s campaign to highlight issues around water use, waste and quality. The teacher who organised the event said: “all agree that the talk was very interesting, and students captivated. Hopefully this will spur on some action, based on your recommended resources. It was great to get your input into the new school design too. We will have to lobby the principal and department architects too!” 

Social impact

Dr Cotterill has highlighted her research findings in a variety of media pieces, such as a national television documentary (Eco Eye, RTÉ 1, each episode of which is watched by around half a million people) and a weekly newspaper (the Farmer's Journal, one of the top selling national newspapers in Ireland, reaching more than 370,000 readers every week). In these interviews, she shared her findings and communicated simple, easy-to-implement suggestions for the public to adopt (such as the use of low-flow shower and tap fixtures, or rainwater harvesting). This demonstrates engagement with the public to contribute to widespread understanding of how much water is available and how it’s influenced by people’s behaviour.

Environmental impact

Environmental impact will be realised in the longer-term. Once implemented, the recommendations arising from Dr Cotterill’s research will yield a range of environmental benefits. They will help protect natural resources, contribute to net-zero carbon targets, and mitigate sewer capacity issues (which currently hinder delivery of the Government’s housing development targets).


  • "All agree that the talk was very interesting, and students captivated. Hopefully this will spur on some action, based on your recommended resources. It was great to get your input into the new school design too. We will have to lobby the principal and department architects too!"
    — Sinead Cheevers, Teacher, Bridgetown College

Research report


Policy brief


Media appearances