A quantitative investigation of narratives: recycled drinking water

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Courtesy of IWA Publishing

Recycled drinking water represents one of the most obvious and technologically reliable sources of urban water. Yet it is one of the least implemented solutions. Blame has often been laid on the emotional and psychological difficulties of persuading people that recycled drinking water is safe to drink. This ‘yuck’ factor has been empirically identified as a statistically significant variable. But how are such factors perceived? And more importantly – can these perceptions be changed? This study attempts a quantitative study of public perceptions and norm formation in recycled drinking water. Using the Q methodology, which reveals the subjective perceptions of key stakeholders, we uncover the following discourses: (1) technology can change current paradigms; (2) ensuring a safe water supply is a problem that has an economic cost; (3) environmental and global realities make it imperative to recycle water. These findings confound two prevailing views – that the debate in recycled drinking water is one of science over emotions, and more information can ‘overcome’ the apparently irrational norm formation. Instead, we find no new information in this case. Rather what was present was a new interpretative frame that allowed a new narrative enabling the bridging of two previously contradictory positions – in this instance, the pro- and anti-water reuse discourses.

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