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Department of Sociology, Flinders University of South Australia, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

Department of Sociology, Flinders University of South Australia, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

Department of Sociology, Flinders University of South Australia, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

Water scarcity in urban environments is an issue of increasing concern in Australia and many other parts of the world. Technological solutions include recycling munici- pal effluent, which can be treated to a standard suitable for nonpotable uses such as garden watering and toilet flushing. Successful operation of such solutions requires institutional arrangements for long-term management, as well as public awareness and cooperation to establish safe practices. This article reports on research under- taken at four case study sites in Australia and the United States and identifies the social and management issues important to the success of water reuse projects. The cross-national findings demonstrate that best practice in residential water reuse technology should be coupled with institutional and structural arrangements that inform and involve the public and provide transparent governance. It is suggested that this combination of technical and social structural elements will facilitate a sustained trust in, and acceptance of, water reuse.

Keywords community, public acceptance, recycled water, risk, trust, water reuse

It is now widely accepted that the use of reclaimed water, termed water reuse, can assist in achieving sustainable urban development (e.g., Anderson 1996). Accord- ingly, in Australia, various state governments have now set targets for cities to recycle at least a fifth of their total sewage effluent. Reclaimed water is derived from sewerage systems and treated to a standard that is satisfactory for its intended use. As other ‘‘natural resources’’ and ecological research suggests (Lawrence, Higins, and Lockie 2001; Nyhus et al. 2002), the findings in this article relating to water reuse demonstrate that successful, sustainable management requires an interdisci- plinary approach with input from social scientists that can address the nontechnical, human aspects of resource management. It has also been demonstrated that the character of social structures, social and legal institutions (Klug 2002), and social relations of power (Gupte 2003; Sneddon et al. 2002) has a significant impact on the sustainability of outcomes. History shows that technology can cause new pro- blems while solving others (Arcury & Christianson 1990, 389–390; Beck 1992). The research reported in this article uses cross-national comparative case studies at four urban water reuse sites and examines their differing social and institutional structures in relation to residents’ levels of understanding and trust in water reuse.

Received 4 April 2004; accepted to November 2004. Address correspondence to June S. Marks, Department of Sociology, Flinders University

of South Australia, GPO Box 2100, Adelaide SA 5001, Australia. E-mail: june.marks@flinders.

Society and Natural Resources, 18:557–572 Copyright # 2005 Taylor & Francis Inc. ISSN: 0894-1920 print/1521-0723 online DOI: 10.1080/08941920590947995




Contemporary Social Organization and the Significance of Trust

Modern urbanized societies are characterized by ‘‘abstract systems’’ such as water and electricity that are little understood by consumers and over which individuals have limited control (Giddens 1990, 90). Consumer expectations about their pro- vision have become routinised based on the largely well-established, unproblematic delivery of the service. For the theorist Giddens:

In conditions of modernity, attitudes of trust towards abstract systems are usually routinely incorporated into the continuity of day-to-day activities . . . trust is much less of a ‘‘leap of commitment’’ than a tacit acceptance of circumstances in which other alternatives are largely foreclosed. (1990, 90)

With the depletion of water resources through overdrawing of rivers and under- ground sources, this routine service is being reviewed as part of the drive for sustain- able urban development. Used water, previously wasted through disposal to oceans and rivers, is being treated to a higher standard and delivered to households for nonpotable—not for drinking—uses, known as ‘‘residential reuse.’’ Nonpotable uses include garden watering, toilet flushing, car washing, and other incidental uses such as ornamental features. This helps to conserve water resources, but it also raises the possibility of public health risk if the water is inadequately treated or inappropriately used. As such, ‘‘basic trust’’ in household water supply is necessarily challenged. Under these circumstances, trust has to be actively produced (Giddens 1994, 93), but what are the social and structural conditions important to the development of ‘‘active trust’’?

Sztompka (1999) provides a model that takes as its focus the process of trust for- mation, or what he calls the ‘‘social becoming of trust.’’ Like Giddens (1993), Sztompka argues that a complex interplay of historical antecedents, political, social, and cultural conditions, and individual characteristics all contribute to the level and character of trust. For Sztompka, trust is a necessary prerequisite for political order—without it, social systems are precarious at best (1999, 139). The institutions of a democratic state are predicated on the trust-building process, an important dimension of ‘‘civic culture’’ that includes civil society, cultural capital, and social capital (Sztompka 1999, 15; Misztal 2001, 381). For both Giddens (1990; 1991; 1994) and Sztompka (1999, 21), trusting becomes the crucial strategy for dealing with an uncertain and uncontrollable future in situations of risk.

How, then, is trust built in the case of water recycling with its associated increased health risk and uncertainty? We can deduce that because trust is an ongoing dynamic, it flows from historical conditions and is further shaped by current social influences, as shown in Figure 1. Of particular relevance to water reuse, are the constraining and enabling conditions of the natural environment (Sztompka 1990, 252–253), such as water scarcity or pollution of water resources.

In the case of residential reuse, changes in the way of thinking about, or using, water sourced from sewage effluent are experienced within a particular structural context that interacts with the characteristics of a given community. The resulting experiences influence higher or lower levels of trust in the new technology and those that are advocating its use. This revised culture of trust then becomes the new con- text that shapes future considerations and action.

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In essence, existing social theory suggests that two kinds of components are important to the building of trust (Giddens 1990; Sztompka 1996; 1999; Misztal 1996; 2001). The first of these relates to structural conditions. For example, Sztompka (1999) identifies five structural factors that provide opportunities to build trust:

1. Normative coherence—a general awareness that is developed through a coherent, noncontradictory system of law that exerts influence on other extralegal forms of regulation.

2. Stability of social order—the extent to which the institutions or processes have provided firm reference points through enforcement of regulations.

3. Transparency—of the principles and processes of the social organization. 4. Familiarity—to facilitate knowledge of and confidence in the changed

environment. 5. Accountability— promoted though properly functioning institutions that

provide checks and balances, a form of insurance that is essential to the development of trust.

The second component comprises the personal and collective characteristics of social actors important in shaping the ‘‘prevailing cultural climate of trust’’ (Sztompka 1999, 120). The personal and collective characteristics of a community influence its ‘‘social mood,’’ derived from its social networks and ‘‘collective capital’’ in terms of quality-of-life values and awareness of and willingness to take up existing structural opportunities (1999, 125–132).

Research Design and Methodology

Until recently there has been little research or published literature on the social aspects of water reuse. For these reasons a case-study approach was taken to explore the community experience of recycling water and to analyse how trust is built through the experience. Four residential reuse sites were selected to investigate the experience of those who have chosen to live in these developments. Residential reuse sites involve a community-scale practice of recycling water. These purpose-built housing developments incorporate dual pipes, one reticulating potable (drinking) water and the other, a purple pipe, distributing nonpotable reclaimed water for open-space irrigation and for household use.

Figure 1. The ‘‘social becoming of trust model.’’ Adapted from Sztompka (1990, 1999).

Sustainable Water Reuse: Structure Trust 559



Replication logic was used for selection of multiple-case studies to strengthen the analytic generalizations to the theory (Yin 1989, 44; Glaser and Strauss 1967, 49). New Haven Village was chosen as the first site because, at the commencement of the research in 2000, this eco village north east of Adelaide was the only site in Australia where residents were using reclaimed water for toilet flushing and outdoor uses in a purposefully built development. Following data collection and analysis for the New Haven study, subsequent cases were selected in 2001 on the basis of theor- etical replication, whereby different results were expected for predictable reasons (Yin 1989, 53).

Mawson Lakes, north of Adelaide, was selected as the second site. This was the only other purposefully designed development in Adelaide and, because the reclaimed water was not yet on line, the expectations rather than experience of nonpotable reuse comprised the main variation between the two case studies. A cross-national comparator was required to include sites where residential reuse was well established. Therefore, the third case selected was the city of Altamonte Springs in Florida (USA), where an established municipal system has recycled water for residential use for around 12 years. The fourth study was located in Melbourne, Brevard County, Florida, where a centrally managed system similar to Altamonte Springs has been on line for approximately the same period of time as New Haven. Both Florida sites provide reclaimed water for outdoor uses only (garden irrigation, car washing, hosing down), while the Australian sites extend the purple pipes into the houses to enable the water to be used for toilet flushing. Table 1 summarizes the background context to the sites.

Multiple sources of data were collected for each embedded case study to enhance construct validity (Yin 1989, 41). As summarized in Table 2, data were collected for each unit of analysis relating to the study community as a whole through to the experience of individual residents. The type of project and intermediate-level data varied according to availability and application to each case study. Additionally, at New Haven, interviews were also conducted with the engineering contractor responsible for maintaining the reclaimed water treatment plant, the accountant for the local council, a nongovernment welfare housing manager, one of the original project developers, and an engineer for the recycled water permitting authority. Twenty householders were recruited through random selection from the residential customer databases for each of the four sites. High response rates resulted, with 67% at Altamonte Springs, 80% at Brevard County, 85% for New Haven, and 87% at Mawson Lakes. Semistructured, face-to-face interviews were audiotaped at each of the Adelaide sites and, due to time and budget constraints for the United States field trip, Florida residents were interviewed on site by telephone with ver- batim notes taken in shorthand.

The comparative case-study method provided the opportunity to identify similari- ties and differences between the sites. Although residents at Mawson Lakes had not yet gained delivery of reclaimed water, the data complemented and strengthened findings for the other case studies and underlined the significance of this early stage of preen- gagement. The qualitative data could not be generalised to the respective populations; however, worthwhile comparisons could be made between the data sets, backed by field observations and other data, as listed in Table 2. Face-to-face interviews with the Florida respondents would have provided a more accurate comparator, yet this was no barrier for these experienced end users in terms of understanding the interview questions, and roughly half provided additional explanations and comments.

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