13 June 2014

Attitudes towards the use of recycled water have been tested in recent years with many communities bound by extended water restrictions during times of drought—this has pushed the community to think fluidly about how it uses its water supplies.

In particular, there are many across the nation who still struggle with the concept of using recycled or desalinated water. One particular researcher has dedicated her time to learning why. 

Dr Kelly Fielding is an ARC Future Fellow and a Senior Research Fellow in the Institute for Social Science Research at The University of Queensland. 

Dr Fielding’s research during her Fellowship has been to understand the social and psychological factors that are related to environmental decision-making, with the goal of promoting greater sustainability.

“My focus with this Fellowship is on urban water management—this encompasses issues like community views of alternate water sources, such as recycled or desalinated water,” Dr Fielding said.

“Initially, when we think about dealing with environmental problems, we might be focussed on technological problems, the sorts of issues that engineers or biophysical scientists work on.

“However, in relation to urban water use, when you talk to people in this space, when you talk with for example toxicologists about recycling water, they will say that the primary barriers are not technological, they are social.

“These people have the technology and the research to back it up, but the main barrier is that people don’t understand, or have concerns about, the offered solutions.

“And there is no simple answer—there is no homogeneous community out there where everyone thinks the same way.”

The goal of Dr Fielding’s research is to discover different reasons why people might accept or reject a technical solution.

“My expertise has been channelled in this direction, into dealing with issues of community views of alternative water sources.”

Dr Fielding has a growing body of work which is helping to show that there are ways to communicate about alternative water sources which better address responses to these issues.

An interesting finding that is emerging from the research is associated with the delivery of technical information.

“There has been distrust of the idea that you just need to give people information, that the problem is in getting people to understand technical issues,” Dr Fielding said.

“My research is showing that there are ways to communicate technical information that can be more effective and build acceptance of change.

“I have looked at the extent to which we can address people’s emotional responses to recycled water—although it’s not all about dealing with the ‘yuk factor’.

“With information we can help people to actually feel differently, it’s not just about a cognitive response.

“We have an intuitive sense that all the rational information in the world is not going to get people to feel differently. But if we think about the framing of that information, then we can build trust…and from trust comes the emotional change.

“The provision of accurate transparent information is a key factor in trust building.”

While Dr Fielding has been making inroads in this field of research, her own research career has also benefited from her Future Fellowship.

The Fellowship has allowed her to develop her expertise and reputation as a social researcher in urban water management. She has been approached by a number of organisations, and water agencies around Australia to develop different research projects.

“I’m now getting more approaches than I have capacity to respond to. And although my work is primarily in Australia, urban water management is an international issue, and I have been invited to join a European reference group because of my expertise in the social science of water.”

A 2012 paper published in Society and Natural Resources: An International Journal which Dr Fielding co-authored notes that the referendum held in Toowoomba which proposed using a potable recycled water system, was unique in the world, and provides a special opportunity to examine community opinions on such schemes.

Dr Fielding’s findings are yielding information that can be applied to a range of risks, as well as helping to make better water policy. One of the key outcomes of her research is to demonstrate to administrators how effective communication programs can help to break policy deadlocks.

“The distinction between the rational and emotional is common in any risk domain. The key issue is peoples’ perception of the risk.”

For more information about Dr Fielding’s research please contact The University of Queensland.


Image: Dr Kelly FieldingImage courtesy: Dr Kelly Fielding.