The world is running out of drinking water — a stark fact that challenges governments around the world, irrespective of their economic or geographical status.
Today, about 1.1 billion people worldwide lack access to clean water, with about 2.7 billion experiencing water scarcity for at least one month of the year[i]. Substandard sanitation infrastructure impacts about 2.4 billion people, exposing these persons to diseases like cholera and typhoid fever; two million people die each year from diarrhoeal diseases alone.
While fresh water supplies shrink due to factors like climate change and pollution, demand for clean water continues to rise at a rapid rate, spurred on by the world’s growing population and economic expansion. If left unresolved, half of the world will face water scarcity by 2030ii.
Faced with this conundrum, a handful of countries that include Singapore, Namibia and the United States have started recycling sewage into drinking water. But inevitably, the reuse system has met with great resistance from consumers. For some people, no matter how safe recycled water is, the feeling of disgust is too much to overcome.
A series of studies conducted on Perceptions of Water Systems found that the average American, even among college students, was uncomfortable with the idea of drinking treated, recycled wastewater, regardless of what the safety data saidiii.
How, therefore, can governments overcome all the above and provide drinking water for all?
Water Reuse — A “Single Silver Bullet”?
The act of recycling water has existed for millennia. The Ancient Greeks, for instance, reused wastewater for sanitation purposesiv, with other ancient civilisations levering recycling techniques for agricultural purposesv. However, it is only since the late-1960s that mankind has been transforming wastewater into drinking watervi at scale.
There are many ways to perform this process, ranging from the use of membranesvii to the process of electrodialysisviii. But for all the science that has made water reuse accessible and affordable for many nations globally, a significant challenge stands in the way of governments in the form of public perception.
At the heart of this angst is the view that recycled drinking water (RDW) is not clean nor is it hygienic, when studies show it to be more hygienic than many sources of freshwater. The solution to this challenge, argued Dr Ching Leong in the study The Role of Emotions in Drinking Recycled Waterix, lies in a water authority’s messaging of water reuse to the public.
“The dominant hypothesis is that RDW has been rejected on emotional grounds of disgust, a visceral psychological reaction known as the ‘yuck’ factor,” stated Leong, who is Co-Director, Institute of Water Policy and Assistant Professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. The study investigated the role of emotions in technical decision-making and applies it to RDW implementation.
The study tested two hypotheses: “First, that negative emotions affect the policy process through a negative ‘goal definition’ of the problem, making it unattractive to stakeholders. Second, the emotional quality of policies can be manipulated by policy entrepreneurs. These hypotheses are tested on two cases of RDW — one failed and the other successful.”
To prove the first hypothesis, the study draws an analogy between decision-making and policy-making. If a specific policy generates positive feedback from the general public, governments tend to over-invest in it. Likewise, if your social circle is supportive of a particular idea, chances are that you will be too. Conversely, if a policy elicits negative sentiments from the public, governments are less likely to invest time and effort in it.
Expanding on the second hypothesis, the study explores the inherent problem of propaganda. Governments have been able to influence policy change by playing on the emotions and values of the masses. For example, if a group of individuals is deeply passionate about climate change, they would likely be supportive of a policy change that ties back to environmental conservation.
Windhoek and Los Angeles — A Tale of Two Cities
To highlight the importance of communicating an inspiring message that leads to public buy-in, Leong examined the experiences of Windhoek in Namibia and Los Angeles in the US.
The city of Windhoek has been recycling water since 1968. Upon the initial commissioning of its first reclamation plant, the city faced adverse public reaction. However, authorities overcame this by instilling stringent quality and health standards, and a policy of transparency and accountability. Communication that addressed public concern was also important: the city frequently released data to show that the monitoring at the reclamation plant was consistently safe. Commissioned in 2002, a new reclamation plant is today responsible for at least 35% of the city’s potable requirements — a feat that would not be achievable without public buy-in.
The reaction to implementing RDW in East Valley, Los Angeles, was significantly different. In 2000, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) announced the completion of the East Valley Water Reclamation Project. Immediately after LADWP’s presentation to City Council, members questioned how and why the project had been approved. Homeowners opposed the venture as well, and a newspaper published an article with the title “Tapping Toilet Water” — the project was quickly dubbed “toilet-to-tap”. Residents and community groups ramped up their opposition, and the project was soon suspended.
What did Windhoek get right, and Los Angeles get wrong?
Positive Verses Negative
While Leong’s study examines both cases extensively, ultimately the difference between the two projects is attributed to one exerting a positive message, with the other harbouring a negative narrative.
The policy goals of the Los Angeles project were immediate and concrete, but lacked emotion and sensitivity, and gave the impression that the project’s operator cared little for the well-being of residents. It was messaged somewhat curtly, emphasising social justice — the overall message was: “Everyone should have access to good water.”
The Windhoek project, which focused on long-term ecological sustainability, was framed in terms of climate change mitigation and the city’s proximity to desert terrain: “Given where we are, and the state of the environment, recycling is a good option,” was the message that the project’s operators conveyed.
Leong explained: “The emotional differences between the two cases result in two very different narratives — the first, intense, highly negative, tied up with notions of unfairness and injustice. The second, although not wholly positive…was ultimately supportive of the need for RDW because of climate and ecological realities.”
Lessons Learnt, Reuse Case Made
The study highlights the importance of positive messaging, particularly when communicating an issue that could be seen as having a negative impact on society. The paper brings to the fore the fact that not all policymakers are communication experts, and that numerous considerations and emotional intelligence must be applied to all public messaging.
It also aptly elevates the pressing case for water reuse: “In light of increasing uncertainty and variability, water recycling and reuse continues to be the most sustainable option because of its weather resilience, availability in urban settings and the possibilities of environmental, energy and financial savings,” wrote Leong.
“Understanding the dynamics of its emotional dimensions will allow policymakers to react and manage implementations of RDW, which will become increasingly salient in the future,” she added.
Access the full study here: http://www.mdpi.com/2073-4441/8/11/548/htm