Water-Recycling in South-East Queensland, Australia: What Do Men and Women Think?

By Miller, Evonne; Buys, Laurie | Rural Society, December 1, 2008 | Go to article overview

Water-Recycling in South-East Queensland, Australia: What Do Men and Women Think?


Miller, Evonne, Buys, Laurie, Rural Society


Introduction

Water is increasingly described as the dominant global issue of the 21st century, as both developing and developed countries experience water availability and quality challenges due to demand, drought and development (Miller, 2006). Whilst each region will respond differently to this water crisis, the solutions will almost invariably involve a combination of sustainable water management policies: demand management and behaviour change initiatives; full water pricing; and new infrastructure and technologies, such as water desalination and water recycling. In many countries there has been significant community debate about water recycling, with local residents often opposed to the idea of drinking treated recycled wastewater. This paper explores gender differences in knowledge and acceptance of water recycling as a solution to the water crisis in South- East Queensland (SEQ), which is currently the first and only region in Australia to formally decide to recycle water for potable use.

Australian and international water recycling projects

The global water crisis has prompted the development of water recycling projects in the United States, the United Kingdom, Namibia, Belgium, Singapore, Israel, and Australia. Generally, recycling water for nonpotable industry (i.e., agricultural and horticultural irrigation) and household (i.e., toilet flushing and garden watering) usage is accepted by the public, whereas recycling water for potable use (i.e., drinking) is a more controversial issue (Po, Kaercher & Nancarrow, 2003). After over 40 years of experience, however, scientists have reported no negative health effects - toxicological or epidemiological - from planned potable recycling schemes, with the water found to be of equal or better quality than traditional sources (Khan & Roser, 2007). It is important here to acknowledge the difference between planned and nonplanned systems of water recycling, and the subsequent impact on community engagement and acceptance. Planned recycled water is wastewater that has been purposively treated for drinking, usually through a highly technical process involving microfiltration, reverse osmosis and advanced oxidation (Queensland Water Commission, 2007). Conversely, unplanned recycled water is when wastewater enters the natural water system without consumer's explicit knowledge, for example when communities draw their water supplies from rivers that receive wastewater discharges upstream. For simplicity, this paper focuses specifically on planned systems of water recycling.

Internationally, several planned potable water recycling schemes operate successfully. In the United States, Water Factory 21 located in Orange County, California commenced operation in 1976 and, after recent upgrades, produces 240 million litres of water per day through a reverse osmosis-treated process. This is stored in an underground aquifer and mixed with deep-well water to provide 25% of the drinking water supply (Orange County Water District, 2008). In Texas, El Paso residents consume recycled water, which is blended with other water at the Fred Harvey Water Reclamation Facility for six years before being distributed (National Water Commission, 2007). Outside the United States, in the United Kingdom, 10% of the drinking water in Essex (population 1.5 million) is recycled, whilst the NEW Water scheme in Singapore currently comprises one percent of the drinking water supply, with plans to increase this to 2.5% by 2012 (Queensland Water Commission, 2007).

Notably, public opposition to the idea of drinking recycled water, specifically the 'yuck factor', has halted the implementation of several water recycling projects. In the United States, San Diego and Tampa residents successfully campaigned against proposals in the mid- 1990's, with emotional debates about the 'toilet to tap' process, as well as a perception in San Diego that poor neighbourhoods would be drinking the sewage from rich neighbourhoods. …

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