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Making decisions about water can be a risky business

Risk perceptions form a major element of our day-to-day decision-making, but our very calculation of risk is such a big factor that we often undertake these assessments unconsciously. 

Water managers are consistently making decisions on the best approach to manage water and wastewater issues, and while we may think these decisions are objective, personal biases cannot be fully removed. This is something that Dr Anna Kosovac, a Research Fellow in International Urban Politics at the University of Melbourne explored in a paper last year.

Risk itself is not a cut and dry topic. Within scholarly thought, there is ample amount of contention arising from the epistemological basis of risk: Does it actually exist? Who decides on the risk? Is it a subjective process? What level of social construction is it open to? 

I won’t get into this here, but it nevertheless forms an important part of our day-to-day living through to our work practices, particularly in the field of public water management.

When deciding on a course of action, water managers (often at the business case or options analysis stage) think about the potential risks that are apparent in the proposed options. The paper sought to explore the underlying personal decision-making that occurred at this stage. As part of this work, 77 water practitioners from the public sector within Melbourne were surveyed, providing typical and non-typical scenarios. 

The themes that came out consistently as the largest risks were the risk of community backlash and threat to company reputation, which featured consistently higher than other risk factors such as public health, cost, or safety (see Figure 1). This is an important finding in understanding the role of water managers and particularly engineers.

Figure 1. Water Professionals’ Cited Risks by Project (Anna Kosovac, Hurlimann, & Davidson, 2017)

This could also be a sign that our democratic processes are working effectively. Being concerned about public outcry, or the consequences of bad publicity harks back to the idea that the community has power over how we would like our cities to run and what we care about. 

This power-sharing should not be seen as placing a stranglehold on expert authority, but rather that we are effectively creating more citizen-led communities and practices. This is a step in the right direction in terms of water management and should be an element that we consider when we sit down to make that next water decision. 

To read more about risk perception in the water industry, read Dr Kosovac’s 2017 paper here