Water Reuse and Public Acceptance

By Linda Macpherson, CH2M HILL Vice President, Reuse Principal Technologist, Senior Water Policy Planner, and Public Involvement Specialist

Macpherson will be presenting on the topic of water reuse and public acceptance during the International Water Summit. She will share her global expertise during two IWS Project Stream sessions on 16 January, the first from 11:00-11:15 and the second from 2:30-2:45. She is also speaking in the workshop, “Taking a Stakeholder Perspective of Water Reduction, Recycling and Reuse in Order to Improve Stakeholder Engagement and Reduce Water Scarcity,” on 17 January from 16:15-16:45. Learn more about all of CH2M HILL’s IWS participation.

To meet the world’s ever growing need for water, all water supply options need to be considered by the public including water reuse. Because the notion of reusing water often evokes a negative emotional response, a response must be crafted to ensure that the ensuing discourse does not degenerate into a shouting match based on fears and inaccurate information. Reframing the language and images of water, proactively, within the paradigm of water cycle is a proven strategy in defusing these challenges.

Public rejection of municipal drinking water recycling projects has been attributed to the disgust often elicited by the thought of drinking water that has once contacted human waste, an effect referred to in the water reuse literature as the ‘‘yuck factor.” Unfortunately, we may be inviting such a reaction by failing to provide the public with a clear understanding of the physical context and history of current familiar raw water supply sources. Public enthusiasm for “drinking treated sewage” is understandably negative without reframed understanding of the context of water use and reuse.

However, when this information is presented to the public clearly, transparently, and without stigmatizing images, the WateReuse Research Foundation has shown that the public views water reuse as the smart, commonplace and sustainable strategy that it is. (Read more about that research here.) This is good news, as without community support for these projects our economies, health and futures are in real danger. I have led a number of successful water reuse acceptance projects with CH2M HILL in Singapore, Australia and the United States that showcase how with a better understanding of the water cycle the public does rise up to support water reuse in their community. (Check out this “World Water Reuse and Desalination” article for a discussion on how water industry leaders are taking a new public education approach that builds trust and support for water reuse.)

For instance, CH2M HILL developed the conceptual plan for content and messaging for the public education and outreach program to breakdown the psychological boundaries that exist about reclaimed water use in Singapore when PUB introduced its own brand of reclaimed water branded NEWater in 2002. PUB recognized that it needed to find a comprehensive solution to develop public acceptance and support. The extensive program was carried out in phases, including briefings with the media, community leaders, business and government agencies, and the general public; developing a documentary about the benefits of reclaimed water other countries have experienced and the technology of NEWater; and building the NEWater Visitor Centre at Bedok, which incorporates advanced multimedia technology and interactive displays in order to educate the public on NEWater. The Center was conceived to be a fun learning environment where visitors can absorb facts through a multiplicity of learning techniques. They were presented with information about safety, reliability and the sustainability of NEWater processes and product water.

Millions of bottles of NEWater have been handed out since the plants were built, and a public survey by Forbes Research in 2002 found that 98 percent of the public accepted NEWater for potable use. The Centre showcases a new way of thinking about water management, which helps local people overcome the fears and prejudices that have halted other projects worldwide. As a result of this groundbreaking community educational effort, Singapore citizens accept and appreciate the NEWater in their reservoirs.

The NEWater Visitor Centre in Singapore illustrates to the world how technology and public understanding can be successfully aligned to create sustainable water management solutions and highlights the importance of education and engagement in shaping perceptions and driving acceptance of the trial and eventual implementation of these critical reuse projects. This alignment is critical if we wish to build community understanding and support of water reuse technologies and their benefits to achieve the promise of sustainable water management to close the water loop when possible.

I look forward to discussing the latest research in developing a new vernacular for water across the urban water cycle and the use of leading edge communication technologies that combine public understanding with technological advancements that are pointing the way for other projects that are exploring the use of recycled water during the International Water Summit.

Read more Access Water blogs from Macpherson on this topic.

January 18 Update: Linda was video interviewed by Nick Aster of Triple Pundit on the topic of water reuse and public acceptance during the International Water Summit.

Linda Macpherson is an expert and strategist for water reuse information and acceptance. She has been an integral part of groundbreaking projects such as introducing the public to the nation’s first poplar tree/wastewater reuse project in the United States to directing development of Singapore’s NEWater Visitor Centre. She has worked extensively in Australia delivering the iconic Gippsland Water Factory Visitor Centre and a Demonstration Visitor Centre in Perth for Water Corp. Her knowledge and commitment in these projects have brought her to the forefront of bridging the gap between the engineering/scientific community and the general public. Linda is often called upon to help diverse stakeholders build appreciation for both the technical and larger policy context of water issues. Linda serves on the Board of Directors of the WateReuse Association and Research Foundation.

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2 Responses

  1. Tim Shea/WDC says:

    Great stuff. Keep up the good work.

  2. Linda,

    Keep educating us - you were the first person I heard talk on this subject and you’re still the best strategic thinker for advancing the practice and bringing the public along with the technology.


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