Academic journal article Rural Society

My Water's Fine, Isn't It? an Exploration of the Gendered Perception of Water Quality and Security in Australia

Academic journal article Rural Society

My Water's Fine, Isn't It? an Exploration of the Gendered Perception of Water Quality and Security in Australia

Article excerpt

Introduction

It has long been documented that just 2.5% of global water supplies are freshwater and of this just 0.5% is accessible for human consumption (NHMRC, 2004). Human population growth and the impact of climate change have exacerbated the stress on the world's fresh water resources ( Corvalan 2007; Rose et al. 2001) so much that access to safe drinking water is included as one of the UN's millennial goals: 'halve by 2015 the proportion of population without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation' (United Nations, 2007a). Australia, in particular, is vulnerable to threats to both the quality and quantity of drinking water availability. This is because most of the little rain that falls evaporates. About 20% of the population rely on ground water for drinking supplies which 'is extremely difficult to clean up if it becomes polluted' (NHMRC, 2004, p.8).

Mounting scientific evidence on the implications of climate change for fresh water supplies makes it important and timely to question whether the Australian public is aware of and/or concerned about the quality of their drinking water. Additionally, news coverage of water contamination events, frequently labelled 'natural disasters', tends to generate extensive media coverage (Ragusa & Crampton, 2007) and raises public consciousness of both scientific and popular understandings of water issues. Moreover, research has shown even when media publicity declines, due to decline in affected cases and/or identification of causes / solutions, water contamination events often create lasting public impressions (Ragusa & Crampton, 2007).

This research sets out to explore Australians' knowledge and perceptions about water quality and contamination. It specifically questions whether Australians' perceptions of their drinking water differ by gender and how perceptions differ by location (urban versus rural) and other demographic variables. Qualitative face-to-face interviews and quantitative surveys were collected in five geographical locations detailed in the methods section. Findings are revealed in a socio-political climate where Australia's Minister for Climate Change and Water, Penny Wong states in relation to the Federal Budget, 'the effects of climate change mean most of Australia's cities and towns have less water, and we can no longer [rely] on rainfall to supply all our drinking water' (Hannam, 2008).

Gender is a sociological construct whereby individuals learn, through the process of socialisation, what it means to adopt norms, values and behaviours associated with being male or female. Although commonly associated with stereotypes relating to mannerisms and aesthetic displays of gender, such as dress and hair styles, gender norms also affect individuals' agency/behaviour (Holmes, Hughes & Julian, 2007). For instance, research has shown that in most situations, men worry less and have less fear of risk than women (Kahan et al., 2007).

However, research exploring gender differences and perceptions of risks associated with drinking water appear to consistently show women have less tolerance for risk then men. As Hamilton's (1985) increasinglydated study found, even in situations when a water contamination event occurred, men remained less concerned than women, particularly less concerned then women with small children (Hamilton, 1985). In the UK, women were found to be more concerned about the risk of coastal bathing in polluted water than men (Langford et al., 2000). While Australian women consistently showed heightened concern and perceived risk regarding water, men showed greater expectation that authorities and others should solve water issues, believed issues were not as bad as proposed, and in most cases, believed they should not be personally affected (i.e., by increased water restrictions) (Roseth, 2006; Ross, 2005). In one of the earliest studies to consider potential water contamination events as a perceived health risk, American women showed significantly higher levels of concern at both a personal and societal level then men (Park, Scherer & Glynn, 2001). …

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