Friday, May 19, 2006

Perception, Trust and Credibility

Instead of boring everyone to death with another technical post (I’ll get back to UV disinfection later), I decided to address some of the comments that I have received about perception, trust and credibility.

I have no interest in commenting on local social or political environments in Toowoomba, Goulburn or anywhere else (except perhaps Sydney, which I think I am more entitled to comment on!). Therefore, none of the below should be interpreted as an analysis of any specific organisation, but as general observations from an impartial perspective.

A number of proposed water recycling projects around the world have failed as a direct result of a lack of community confidence. They include schemes in Europe, Australia and the USA. In each case, community misgivings could be attributed, in part, to a lack of trust towards the organisation responsible for the proposed water recycling scheme.

Community views of water recycling have been a topic of interest to social scientists since the early 1970s. Since then, water treatment technologies have undergone considerable development and improvement. However, during that time, community support for many forms of water recycling has not significantly increased. As such, there appears to be no strong correlation between the quality of reclaimed water and community acceptance of its use for specific applications.

To fully understand community attitudes to water recycling, it is necessary to consider instinctive and emotional responses that people have to the issue. It has been shown that many people trust their own impressions of water quality (often based on cloudiness or colour of the water) more than they trust medical and scientific evidence. In other words, perceptions of water quality are not simple and not always entirely rational.

Some researchers have suggested that once water has been in contact with contaminants, it can be psychologically very difficult for people to accept that it has been purified. These factors can create mental barriers to the acceptance of recycled water as a source of pure water.

Despite these challenges, a recent review of studies undertaken in the USA has revealed highly positive insights to community perceptions and attitudes towards water recycling. I suspect many would also apply in Australia:

  • The community is interested in being meaningfully involved in water reuse decisions.
  • The community is interested in finding ways to ensure independent and secure water supplies for their communities.
  • While the community is not well versed in the water cycle, they are generally aware that there are water supply problems in many parts of the country.
  • The community believes that some form of potable reuse is inevitable, given growth and water supply constraints.
  • Information sharing, educational activities and opportunities for reflection upon the concepts of water recycling can increase support.

Ultimately, success of water recycling projects will largely depend on the credibility of the supplier of information. The credibility of the water recycling organisation and its senior personnel are as important to the success of the project as the quality of the project itself. A recent study by Anna Hurlimann (University of South Australia) demonstrated that the degree of trust that an individual had for a water authority was proportionate to the individual’s level of confidence that a planned recycled water supply would not pose unacceptable risks to their health. Dr June Marks (Flinders University, Adelaide) has further reported that institutional frameworks that inform and involve the community are required factors for the generation of trust.

The credibility of an organisation planning water recycling will be judged on a number of factors, which may include perceptions of the organisation’s:

  • commitment to the welfare of the community
  • performance record based on previous initiatives
  • knowledge of the issues, as demonstrated by spokespersons
  • impartiality regarding the subject matter

Surveys undertaken by June Marks indicate that water and sewerage authorities often receive the lowest degrees of community trust. The medical profession commands the greatest degree of community trust, followed by public health authorities, reputable research institutions, environmental protection agencies and non-government environmental groups.

In instances where the community associates a high level of risk with a water recycling project, trust has shown to be maximised when the following conditions are met:

  • Dialog is sustained
  • The community has independent sources of information, not linked to the sponsoring agency
  • The community can ask questions
  • The community is involved early
  • Information is available to everyone
  • Behaviour is non coercive. It is considered a reasoned and fair way to make a decision
  • Everyone’s opinion matters, and there is a willingness to listen to all views and expand the discussion if necessary
  • Citizens have some level of control in the process (such as by contributing to the agenda or ground rules)

I would argue that it is the responsibility of the organisation promoting water recycling to generate this trust over time. However, I would also argue that well-placed trust in the organisation is very much in the communities’ interest. The water management problems faced by Australians are real and serious. We need to implement sustainable solutions as a matter of urgency.

It is clear to me that communities can over-come their natural trepidation and place their trust in responsible organisations when they see clearly that it is in their interest to do so. Every time we get on train or bus we depend on the relevant authority or owner to have employed suitably trained drivers who will get us to our destinations safely. When we eat in a restaurant, we trust the chef not to poison us. When we drink bottled water, we trust the bottling company to have properly treated and managed the water. We even trust hospitals and doctors to cut us open to make repairs, -all because we have determined that the benefits far outweigh the risks. The same can and should apply to a well planned and carefully managed water recycling scheme.

As always, send your feedback, praise or personal abuse by clicking the “comments” link below.


Anonymous said...

"Instead of boring everyone to death with another technical post (I’ll get back to UV disinfection later)".

Hmmm good excuse...

or "I wont discuss UV disfection because i know there are flaws"???

Anonymous said...

We should be able to trust our politicions and local councils and orginisations to listen to us when we tell them NO we don't want that. But that is not what the water recycling industry and its followers are all about is it. They think it has the perfect solution to all our water problems, doesn't matter if we say no, they still try to ram there scientific data and there oppinions down our throats. They use scare tactics, cover up the truths with scientific jargon and try to make out they care for the environment. BLAH!! Toowoomba City Council is a good one for that cut down twenty or more mature fairly drought proof perfectly healthy trees right in the middle of a drought because they were too lame to try and incorporate them into the West Creek revitalisation program and now they say they are going to plant new trees and grass come hell or dry and water them while the rest of the residents face level 5 water restrictions which means we will not even be allowed any outside watering, so our trees will die and there recycling plan will not help that, it will need to rain. And to make matters worse the council forms some environmental action group and the first thing they do is throw there support behind Water Futures when the first thing I would have done is blasted council over the tree thing.

The mere thought of using recycled water in our domestic supplies will not even be accepted while social and economic and whole of region issues are completely ignored! For crying out loud there hasn't even been an environmental impact study! Toowoomba City Council is trying to ram water recycling down our throats without thoughts to any other concerns!

Stuart you came to the Toowoomba Blogs to bring your scientific oppinions on water recycling upon us. Instead of taking a neutral stance on the trust issue perhaps you should familiarise yourself with the whole scenario here otherwise you are probably wasting your time!

Snow Manners said...

This post closely parallels Troy Hartley's "Public perception and participation in water reuse."

Hartley's Table 1 "acceptance is higher when ..." lists acceptance factors.

When Linda McPherson (CH2M-Hill’s Vice President Public Involvement Specialist) worked with Toowoomba City Council they fell into the trap of trying to contrive the acceptance factors with banal media statements from the Mayor.

"Toowoomba is going to go on file as a case study in how not to introduce potable recycling of water and that's because it's been an absolute fiasco from day one." a view I expressed on SBS Insight "Running Dry" and I still hold that view.

The retrospective view of the Toowoomba campaign will be very interesting. The campaign of "facts" is now underway when the real issue is "trust" and Thorley's ability to enagage her community on that issue.

Hartley's Table 3 "Case Studies" - Toowoomba is most comparable, at this stage, to San Diego.

In the Australian context Toowoomba is going to be a much studied attempt to introduce potable reuse.

Stuart Khan said...

Thanks Snow,

Yes, I was one of the organisers of the conference where Troy’s paper was presented. Indeed, that is the “recent review of studies undertaken in the USA” that I refer to above.

We invited Troy to come from the USA as a ‘keynote speaker’ and I personally learnt quite a lot from his work. I think his insights are very valuable and Australian elected officials and public servants would do well to take good notice of them.

I agree that Toowoomba will be a much studied attempt to introduce potable reuse, whether it is successful or not. I am very hopeful that a conclusion of those studies will not be “The potential benefits of this scheme were not realised due largely to widespread misinformation and hysteria about public health effects of water recycling”. An equally unfortunate conclusion would be “The potential benefits of this scheme were not realised because the promoters of the scheme failed to win the trust of the community”.

Tubbs said...

Stuart you seem like a rational bloke although some of the other commentators are not. I guess that which has upset people the most is the lack of consultation and that alienates people. However, I have to admit I also support recycling and think it is essential. I am a big believer in dual reticulation but that is another story...

Anonymous said...


Please answer the following questions:

1. What is your relationship with Toowoomba City Council?

2. What is your relationship with CH2M HILL?

3. Who funds your research?

Stuart Khan said...

Fair questions,

1. I have no previous or existing relationship with Toowoomba City Council whatsoever.

2. I have no previous or existing relationship with CH2M Hill whatsoever.

3. The vast majority of my research funding comes from the Australian Research Council (ie. The Commonwealth Government). I have also been employed on projects funded by the Commonwealth Department of Education Science and Training (DEST) and the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In the last 5 years I have received some smaller funding (or small contracts) from the Queensland EPA, Arup, Sydney Water, Sydney Olympic Park Authority, MidCoast Water, Commonwealth Department of Environment and Heritage (DEH), and the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD).

Anonymous said...

I,m not sure if I see any potential benifits of the Water Futures scheme except a little bit more water which more then likely would have been used by irrigators downstream from Wetalla anyway. While recycling water maybe okay in some instances - why take water away from those who use it to supply it to others without looking for new water sources. Trust covers more then just our own selfish needs or ideas.

Anonymous said...

This blog is just LIES.

It should be deleted.

I have flagged it for the administrators to delete and others who do not want to dring POOrified WEEcycled sewage should flag it too.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the post Stuart.
I think some people respond well to education and others will continue to refute information as lies.
I hope this potential solution can be rationally discussed and the general public can access the facts and make an informed decision. It's far too easy to say "no" without fully understanding the process or the possibilities.

Thanks again for providing a rational post.

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