Sometimes ‘out of sight, out of mind’ may be the best policy?

Australia is a country whose sustainability is very dependent on its ability to manage its limited water resources. It therefore comes as a great surprise that water managers in that country have been faced by such a vociferous backlash about the need to introduce water recycling.

A recent article [1] has described how at the height of a serious drought in 2006, when the level of the city of Toowomba’s reservoir had fallen to below 20%, a referendum by residents turned down a potable water reuse scheme. Before the referendum there was a highly charged ‘debate’ in which an organisation called CADS (Citizens Against Drinking Sewage) was active and gained ‘first mover advantage’ by expressing their views even before public bodies had clearly described the scheme. They used such emotive headlines as ‘straight from the sewage plant for you to drink‘ and ‘I don’t want to die Mummy‘. This turned the matter into a highly political as well as emotional debate.

Interestingly the article’s authors had returned to the city of Toowomba two years later. They found much of the opposition had disappeared and that there was an acceptance of the inevitability of water re-use – if residents continued their existing lifestyles. In the two years following the referendum, water conservation measures and restrictions remained in place, fully supported by residents. In addition – although not yet fully implemented – the town will have a supplementary pipeline from Brisbane, to bring in supply from another reservoir which itself – if it falls below a certain level – will be recharged via recycled water.

This extremely interesting paper shows some of the political and social problems associated with water reuse. It also confirms a statement by another researcher, Dishman, and his co-authors [2] that whilst the ‘technical aspects of potable water reuse can be resolved … the issue of public acceptance‘ can always ‘kill‘ any proposal.

At the same time, many of London’s citizens in the UK would wonder what all this fuss is about. They often joke that the water they drink has been through several of their fellow citizens ‘kidneys’. Of course alongside this accepting attitude there is also a continuing stream of concerns about the build up of endocrine disrupters in multi-discharge and input water river systems…

These Australian studies also confirm that introducing not only innovative new schemes into the water cycle – but also long-used and well-understood processes – can, if not handled sympathetically, cause real albeit often unfounded fear and concerns in the community. Politics can also ‘muddy the water’ to play on community fears. Nevertheless the careful use of unbiased, fully-transparent advice from ‘experts’ – if it is made available appropriately and not in a panic-filled and or overly-hasty environment – can help the citizenry to support a well argued case for much-needed water conservation measures.

Update (15/11/2016): Public domain featured image added from this source.

Roger Ford

[1] Hurlman, A. and S. Dolnicar (2010), ‘When public opposition defeats alternative water projects: the case of Toowomba, Australia’, Water Research, 44 (1), 287-297.

[2] (1989), Journal of Professional Issues in Engineering, 115 (2), 158.

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