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Why building water literacy is more important than ever

Water scarcity, increasing droughts and changing rainfall patterns associated with climate change pose a major challenge for Australian water utilities. But mediating genuine change requires engaging with the community. 

Cape Town’s water crisis in South Africa. Flint, Michigan. Australia’s own Millennium Drought. The current bushfire crisis.

They all show how fragile our water supply is increasingly becoming, and just how important innovation and infrastructure development are to ensure water security.

Water crises in major international cities have served as a reminder to Australians of the very real risk and impact of severe water shortages and why we must be smart about how we supply and use this precious resource,” Seqwater Corporate and Community Relations Manager Sophie Walker said.

Broadly speaking, there is a difference between urban and regional understandings of water scarcity. While regional populations are often all too familiar with droughts, a survey by Sydney Water last year found that most residents were unaware they were currently in a drought.

Find out how three water utilities found success through community engagement.

To meet shortage challenges, the water sector needs the support necessary to change water supply, management and patterns of use to ensure long-term water supply. Many options are available – water restrictions, desalination plants, potable reuse, aquifer recharge, advanced leak detection, smart metering – and all will likely play a role.

“Most of our public systems are built very much around opinion rather than judgement."

Iain Walker, Executive Director, New Democracy Foundation

The biggest challenge is keeping a diverse public accustomed to cheap, plentiful water, onside. Walker and other experts agree that while many Australians may appreciate that our continent is water scarce, few understand the urban water cycle, what makes water safe to drink, or how water comes from various sources. The problem isn’t the evidence.

“At this point, the merits of potable reuse have been proven extensively from a technical and financial perspective,” said GHD Water Treatment and Desalination Service Line Leader Arturo Burbano.

The biggest challenge to water security is often public opinion.

“Most of our public systems are built very much around opinion rather than judgement; opinion polls and surveys that ask people what they think when they haven’t been thinking,” said Iain Walker, Executive Director of New Democracy Foundation, a privately funded research foundation aimed at building trust in public institutions and driving innovation in Australia’s democratic system.

“Everyone has different views on many aspects of the water system, but struggle to point to a primary source when they’re asked to back up their views.”

Public opinion

Walker said water literacy is vital to ensure the public supports major changes.

“Water literacy is critical to the community being able to participate in water saving initiatives during times of drought and also to establish trust in drinking water from climate-resilient sources such as desalination and purified recycled water,” he said. 

“When you add population growth and a changing climate, the importance of water literacy becomes paramount.”

Getting it wrong can set back development and innovation for years. Toowoomba in the mid 2000s is a cautionary tale. Despite initial government support, a potable reuse plan ultimately failed, hindered by a number of factors including limited community consultation and education. Getting it right can open up new sustainable sources of water supply.

Water Corporation’s aquifer recharge program in Perth is often touted as a success. After a lengthy trial period and community education program, aquifer recharge with recycled wastewater now supplies a growing share of the city’s water needs and continues to enjoy strong public support. What can utilities and local governments learn from these experiences to ensure water literacy in their communities and drive effective change?

Utilities turned educators

The 2015 National Survey of Australians’ Water Literacy and Water-related Attitudes, conducted by the Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) for Water Sensitive Cities, showed that while Australians largely understand where their water comes from and the importance of conservation, there were sobering gaps in water literacy.

“Only 13% of households surveyed thought they used more water than average, which is significantly lower than the reality."

Karen Willis, Customer and Community General Manager, Water Corporation

Only 41% of those surveyed understood that water is a finite resource, and over 50% said they’d received no information or education on water in the last six months. While utilities are responsible for managing water and wastewater, there’s a clear benefit in fostering water literacy in the communities they serve.

Water Corporation found there was a mismatch between perception and reality among customers when it came to water use.

“Only 13% of households surveyed thought they used more water than average, which is significantly lower than the reality, where around 40% are using more water than average,” Water Corporation Customer and Community General Manager Karen Willis said.

Armed with insight into customer literacy, Water Corporation built a targeted awareness campaign, including comparative water use bills, that has seen over 70% of recipients reduce their water use.   

Using bills in this way can be a powerful tool for driving water literacy and change. According to the CRC survey, approximately 35% of respondents said they received information from their water utility bill.

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“We put in easily digestible, interesting information about water in the bills, and we promote campaign messages, including ways to be water efficient, on a marketing banner space on our print and e-bills and we replicate the campaign across our other channels,” said South East Water Engagement Advisor Dawn Loh.

But the convenience of electronic bills and autopayment could mean finding new avenues for driving literacy. “I’ll admit, I infrequently read the information provided with my water bill,” said GHD Water Resources Principal Matt Winkelman. 

“I don’t have statistics for this, but my guess is people paying their water bill electronically has increased a lot over the past several years, and this could mean some do not receive information provided with their bill.”

Winkelman recommends a multimedia approach, and has seen effective campaigns across platforms such as LinkedIn, Facebook and even community newspapers and events.

Literacy change

While there is a perception that water management, supply and treatment may be too complex for the public to fully understand, Walker said utilities must trust the public if they ever hope to instigate change.

“People are capable of becoming reasonably informed on a topic, and that’s really our aspiration. We think that’s potentially a huge benefit for the water industry,” he said.

“The hardest part is that you as an expert, you as a subject matter industry expert who’s dedicated their career to this, you are absolutely handing your baby over.” 

Burbano points to the experience of San Diego, where an attempt to start potable reuse ultimately failed because the utility didn’t trust their customers to understand the issue.

“It stalled potable reuse initiatives for 10-15 years,” he said.

A couple of decades later, and after a significant campaign to educate utilities, schools and the general public, San Diego has now embraced potable reuse.

“It becomes clear that the solution to ease political tensions about PR must start with a solid education campaign,” Burbano said.

"Our system means you only hear from people who don’t like something."

Iain Walker

New Democracy has had similar experiences, where education and information have driven difficult decisions that many would think impossible.

The Foundation recently ran a project for Yarra Valley Water around pricing, bringing together a random selection of customers over many months, and provided them with primary sources on water supply and budgeting, and asked them to make recommendations on pricing.

“Yarra Valley Water offered progressively increasing rebates to customers when services were out. What was interesting is that when those customers went through it and saw the balance of price and service, they actually didn’t want those types of rebates offered, which was quite counterintuitive. They started to learn that operating a network is quite difficult,” he said.

While the utility ultimately decided to keep the rebates, it gathered strong evidence that the public can appreciate the complexity of the water system and make decisions that benefit all.

Loh suggests finding common ground and tailoring messaging to customer priorities.

“A secure water supply now and in the future is very important to customers and community. Dialogue and engagement could start from there when we talk about recycled water for potable use,” she said.

For Walker, the key to effective engagement and driving major changes to water supply and management is being open about the process, something he says is not a strong point in the public sector, including water.

“It’s a difficult decision for agencies to take. But when they do have the confidence to open up all the information – not just the good news and hide the bad news – to a group of people, they are the projects that work and generate great results,” he said.

Openness and transparency were also key to the success of Water Corporation’s aquifer recharge project, according to Willis, where a public information centre showed how the project would work.

Water utilities and local governments around Australia regularly undertake surveys, hold community forums, and track response to marketing and education campaigns in an effort to not only gauge water literacy but also support changes to water supply and management.

Measuring a problem is half the solution, but Walker said it’s time to move beyond focus groups and marketing research, and start trusting customers to generate questions and solutions.

“We have to share the problems that exist. I often feel for government agencies that have to come out
and say ‘here’s the solution’, because it’s really easy to throw rocks. Our system means you only hear from people who don’t like something,” he said.

Instead of approaching customers with an agenda or particular project, Walker advises asking open questions on the big problems, and then providing customers with primary sources. “You’ve got to give people incentives to read. We all pay tax – but have we all read the Henry Tax Review?

“That’s a choice that is known in academia as rational ignorance. In our projects we run small samples
of people – 30, 40, 50 – where we give them
primary sources, and have the chief executive or the chair of a water utility give them answers. That radically changes incentives to read,” he said.

From groups to communities

Seeing 30 customers move from having opinions on the water sector to having informed positions
backed up by data is great, but to scale up literacy Walker said water service providers need to turn to the media: not for direct education or promoting a campaign, but to introduce the process of community engagement.

“A project done really well will introduce the people involved before any decision has been reached,” he said.

Slowing the process down and allowing those involved to own the decision also reaps benefits.

“It’s really simple. If I introduce a group of people to you and the problem they’re solving three or four times, you’ll tend to identify with them before they reach a decision.

“Now the same group of people: but you only see them when they reach a decision; you instinctively won’t trust them.”

Slowing the process down and allowing those involved to own the decision also reaps benefits.

Community engagement for Water Corporation’s aquifer recharge project lasted 18 months.

“When those involved own the process, the 30 or 40 can go back and promote it in their community, on a noticeboard at school or the golf club. You can actually scale out to a couple of thousand people,” Walker said.

Ultimately, to drive literacy and successfully implement change, utilities don’t have to run the perfect campaign.

“Vast government enquiries occur today that nobody knows about,”  he said.

“It’s not a case of ‘well not everyone is going to trust us, so we can’t do it’. It’s good, better, best. Done well, we can have projects out there where half the population is aware.”

First published as ‘Water literacy’ in Current magazine October 2019.