Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Lessons from Toowoomba

It is now more than a fortnight since the City of Toowoomba voted ‘no’ to an indirect potable water recycling proposal. The outcome of the poll will have been cause for concern for other towns and cities currently considering similar proposals.

However, having watched the Toowoomba debate closely (if from a distance) and communicated with a number of prominent ‘yes’ and ‘no’ campaigners, I have arrived very firmly at one conclusion: Overwhelmingly, the people of Toowoomba did not reject the concept of potable water recycling, they rejected the process being used to introduce it. The concept may have been workable, but the process deeply flawed.

Accordingly, I present some lessons from Toowoomba, which community leaders in Australia may like to closely consider.

1. Involve the community early

If potable water recycling is subject to serious consideration, now is the time to say so. Planning first and informing later is a doomed strategy. Planning that is perceived to have been undertaken in secret breeds suspicion and contempt. Preparing an application to fund a potable recycling scheme prior to properly involving the community is offensive and sets the scene for confrontation. It sends the message that decisions have been made and that the role of the community is to accept them.

Communities have a valuable role to play in planning, and public officials should recognise and capitalise on this. Your community is home to a diverse collection of combined experience, technical knowledge and skills. Not only are they capable of constructively contributing to debate and decision-making, they have a right to do so.

2. Keep outside interests at bay

The purpose of a local water management strategy is to address local problems and it requires local decisions. The community that is most directly affected has the most to gain or lose by any strategy. Perceptions of outside influences driving the agenda will naturally lead to resentment.

The suggestion that a local plan may provide a case study, a demonstration, or worse –a pioneering experiment for the benefit of other communities is inappropriate and unconstructive. If you must be a pioneer of something, make it community involvement in decision-making.

The water industry has an essential contribution to make in water management. However, conflicts of interest (real or perceived) are too easily created. A private company or organisation with a financial interest in the outcome of a consultation process is probably a poor choice for facilitator. Accepting offers from out-of-town environmental groups to come in and tell people how to vote is a similarly crummy decision.

3. Give serious consideration to all options

Real choice is not about ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Real choice involves putting all options on the table for fair consideration. Potable water recycling has many attributes to recommend it, but it makes little sense when considered in isolation. Therefore, it is essential for potable recycling proposals to be judged by detailed comparison to alternative strategies.

Other strategies requiring equal consideration include water conservation, increased utilisation of natural resources, dam construction, non-potable recycling strategies, water trading, ‘do nothing’, and applying limits to population growth. A triple-bottom-line evaluation process will allow transparent consideration of environmental, social and economic costs and benefits. If potable water recycling can not stand up against these alternatives, it is simply not the optimum strategy.

4. Inform, don’t coerce

Potable recycling is an issue that most communities have not had reason to seriously consider until very recently. Therefore, reliable information is required for them to make an informed decision. It is the responsibility of community leaders to provide this information and there are many effective means of doing so. It is essential for this information to be balanced and to stick closely to the facts. It should avoid making unreasonable predictions about how dire things may become if a strategy is not adopted.

If you are convinced that you have identified the best solution, then say so. Be enthusiastic about it. But do not allow yourself to give the impression that any sensible person should use the same information to arrive at the same conclusions as you. Attempts to coerce polarise communities. It offends those who disagree and will only harden their resolve.

5. Explain relative risk

Risk is a difficult and complex topic, and one which is commonly misunderstood. Effective risk communication is notoriously difficult and blundered attempts can cause unnecessary alarm. No human activity is without risk, including the use of any water supply. Accordingly, demands that risks be proven to be ‘zero’ can never be satisfied.

A more effective communication approach is to explain the relativeness of the risks that we take and accept in everyday life. Compared to risks such as eating in restaurants, crossing roads, or driving a car, health risks associated with consuming well treated recycled water are negligible. Millions of people consume the product of ‘unplanned potable recycling’ in developed countries everyday. Yet, there is no (reliable) observed evidence of negative health impacts (excluding those exposed to poorly treated sewage in developing countries). Advanced water treatment can only be expected to reduce the risks even further. An improved community understanding of these facts will encourage acceptance.

6. Accept dissent

When people are given choice, some make different decisions. It is their right to do so, and community leaders should respect that right. There is no justification for belittling, ridiculing, demonising or ostracising dissenters. There is a sometimes fine line between ‘engaging in constructive debate’ and arguing stubbornly. If you find yourself telling people that ‘if they don’t like it then they can drink bottled water’ or that you ‘would be prepared to go to war on this issue’, then you have probably missed that line. A better approach is to acknowledge that the community as a whole will need to make a decision and that it is inevitable that not every individual will agree with the outcome.

7. Understand and accept the ‘yuck factor’

The ‘yuck factor’ is real, perfectly normal, and has an essential human purpose. It guards us from dangerous exposure to contaminated and unhygienic substances. It is pointless (and incorrect) to suggest that the ‘yuck factor’ is irrational or the result of a lack of intelligence.

Getting over the ‘yuck factor’ for potable recycling is tough for many of us (myself included!). But the important point to make is that advanced-treated water has no relationship to sewage other than its recent history. Water is water and the safety of water is determined entirely by the contaminants that it may contain. Advanced-treated recycled water is unique in terms of its purity and quality control. Understanding this will allow people to logically disassociate clean water from dirty water.

8. Express costs in meaningful terms

Water management is an expensive business. However, most of us are not accustomed to dealing with multimillion dollar costs. Comparing potential water strategies in these terms can seem meaningless, especially when costs are to be shared over large population. Numerous comments left on this blog are along the lines of ‘why do you mention costs? Cost doesn’t matter!’ The fact is that all responsible government decisions will take costs into account and costs will play an important role in defining viability. A strategy that will bankrupt a local government or require rates to rise excessively is unlikely to be viable. A better communication approach is to define costs in terms of those that will need to be met by individual rate-payers. A strategy that is explained to require a small rate-rise will be seen as a legitimate advantage over one that requires a very large rate-rise.

9. Don’t oversell technology

Misrepresenting the capabilities and limitations of proposed technology is a shortcut to undermining your own credibility. However, I suspect that many such misrepresentations are not the result of deviancy, but more of naivety.

Water treatment is a highly competitive business internationally. Like any competitive industry, the private companies involved are not always enthusiastic about promoting the limitations of the technologies that they supply. Nonetheless, it is the responsibility of decision makers to demand accurate information and to make this available to citizens. Lazy simplifications like ‘reverse osmosis removes all molecules except water’ will only get you into trouble. A quick Google-search will show up the inaccuracy of such simplifications and provide the community with a reason to question both your credibility and motives.

10. Always remember the goal

Remember, the goal is not to introduce a planned potable water recycling scheme to your community. The goal is to identify and implement the optimum sustainable water management strategy, whatever it may be.

Any feedback, further lessons or criticism would be appreciated…


Stuart Khan said...

Wow... an entire week has passed without a comment on this post. I interpret this as therefore being my least controversial post so-far. Perhaps that’s a good sign.

njta said...

We are simply sitting in quiet reflection on how things could have been done better.

But I guess when you are learning walk you are bound to trip over for a while, and hindsight is a wonderful teacher.

Let's hope that some lessons have been learnt...

mark said...


What a bloomin fantastic article. And it would appear to me that Beattie has ignored each and every one of these lessons.

Lesson 1 - The Govt (all levels and parties frankly) have not involved the community, and have made decisions behind closed doors.

Lesson 2 - The outside interests (eg. Violia water) had the contract for the water treatment plant by at least 5/12/06, well before Beattie announced that recycling would happen at the end of Jan 07.

Lesson 3 - The referendum was withdrawn. No choice.

Lesson 4 - No information at all about alternatives like de-sal or stormwater harvesting. Why was this option taken?

Lesson 5 - According to the say-so of the Government, Its perfectly safe.

Lesson 6 - Dissenters of any description are branded 'scaremongers' from the get-go.

Lesson 7 - Not merely not understanding the 'yuck factor', the debate has assumed that the 'yuck factor' is the only possible objection one could have to recycling. Its not.

Lesson 8 - Decisions have been made "with or without" federal funding.

Lesson 9 - The simplistic selling of the seven 'barriers' that remove everything. Right.

Lesson 10 - Presumably recycling will continue regardless of whether or not it rains.

Feel free to disagree, but I think you have been ignored.


Stuart Khan said...

Hi Mark,

Thanks for the feedback. I was always disappointed at the lack of response to this post (no offence to njta!). I do agree with you and think you’ve made a valid point in response to each of my ‘lessons’. However, the ‘lessons’ were intended to be considered within the context of a public consultation period. As it turned out, there was and is no public consultation period for SEQ.

The lack of consultation is, I admit, very much against my own sense of community justice and empowerment. However, I am inclined to accept that the situation is truly serious enough that it would have been an even greater injustice to delay action while the dams ran dry. I do think that the fact that things were able to get so desperate without (enough of) us seeing it coming and responding earlier is a disaster. I also think that Beattie’s declaration of ‘No Choice’ is practically inevitably going to lead to widespread dissent, dissatisfaction and resentment. It’s a catalyst for people opposed to potable water recycling to generate fear and anger. Watch it happen.

Mark said...

Hi Stuart,

Even though I tend to be against potable use of sewage-sourced water, I'm not really fearful or angry about it nor do I advise anyone else to be emotional about this subject. For the simple reason that even though they may pipe it to your house, you still don't have to drink it. There are alternatives. For me its a small price to pay, but I consider it good value to have a 'backup'. I do think however that it is a shame that in Australia it has come to this, but it is like this in parts of the US and around the world where people are advised not to drink tap water.

I'm still going to have an open mind - and I will do as you say and watch and see if that water really is OK, but I'll opt not to be a guinea pig on this one if I can help it.

I guess what I am saying is that I don't believe that I have anywhere near enough unbiased information that I can use to make an informed decision to drink. I appreciate your sharing of your knowledge, and I acknowledge that some of the technology is truly amazing, but unfortunately, your site confirms to me that the technology is untested at the scale proposed in SEQ. As Prof Greenfield says, a 50:50 mix. He doesn't know anywhere else that comes close to that. And they're experimenting with 3 million people. Minus this black duck.


Stuart Khan said...

Hi Mark,

This is a fair position for you to take and I agree that there is a need for more widely available information.

However, I would like to correct your implication that people are advised not to drink the water from cities in the USA and elsewhere with planned potable water recycling schemes. It is simply not the case. Furthermore, there will be absolutely no reason for that advice to be given in SEQ. After reverse osmosis and advanced oxidation treatment, this will be one of the cleanest potable water supplies in the world.

Mark said...

Hi Stuart,

I didn't at all mean to imply a direct link between water quality problems in parts of US to recycling schemes. By advice, I mean from residents in those areas and not their water authorities (who have an interest in saying that their water is safe). So if you believe the theory that the market is always right, then you could measure water quality (or lack thereof) in the usage rates of bottled water or home water purification systems and the like. These kinds of stats could prove your point that recycling is not detrimental to quality.

Maybe our highly treated effluent water it will be fantastic stuff. If it is superior to my alternative and I know that the quality control is transparent to the public, I will happily and unashamedly change my mind and drink it. In fact I really hope that it is as good as you say it will be.


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