Australia is deploying an increasing number of desalination plants, revealing a level of social concern about the technology and of water security in general. Governments and operators are faced with the challenge of communicating both general and technical information about desalination technologies to a lay audience, the effectiveness of which has led to mixed support.
The reasons why some projects are supported while others attract opposition are not fully understood. Misunderstanding and miscommunication between desalination plant proponents (government and operators) and the general community, can compromise the implementation and acceptance of new plants. Opposition to the deployment of desalination plants can delay projects, increase capital costs significantly, and both Governments and operators would benefit from a greater understanding of the public’s perception of desalination to assist them in the development of more effective communication strategies.
Conduct a national survey of Australians from each state, collecting opinions and information relating to six topics; Water and Your Household, Water and Desalination, Your Views about the Environment and Water, Water Saving Behaviour, Domestic Water Supply and the Government, and lastly Your Background.
Interview focus groups in areas proximate to desalination plants for their attitudes towards desalination and their perceptions of the major benefits and concerns arising from introducing desalination to their water supply.
This project established a national baseline on the public’s perception and responses to desalination. The response rate was 29%, just over 3,000 respondents answering 378 questions on their attitudes towards desalination, as well as related factors such as water use activity, knowledge of desalination, environmental consciousness, procedural justice, and socio-economic background. Respondents came from a pool of 10,000 invitees, split into a representative sample by state of 7,000 respondents, and two target pools of 1,500 each drawn from Wonthaggi, Victoria, and Port Stanvac, South Australia (the sites of two large desalination plant projects).
Analysis of the results revealed an overwhelming majority supported the implementation of a range of water supply options to meet shortages however, the construction of pipes to move water from one location to another was not supported on the whole. Nearly 50% of respondents supported desalination as a water supply option and the majority would feel safe drinking desalinated water. Public acceptance of the need for desalination for water security was found to be particularly high in Perth (WA) where nearly one half of the drinking water is produced from the two municipal desalination plants.
Focus groups were conducted in Wonthaggi, Port Stanvac, and Kwinana (WA). Thematic analysis revealed strong variations in the level of acceptance in each area, as well as different themes of concern. In Wonthaggi there was significant concern about the impact on the local environment, energy usage, as well as the politics of operation of the desalination plant. In Port Stanvac, there was concern about the impact of brine on the Spencer Gulf. In contrast, in Kwinana, there was general support for desalination as important part of water supply augmentation, where it was agreed that desalination was both necessary and appropriate.
This landmark survey has collected a wealth of information on Australian attitudes towards desalination and on water resource management in general. The results are already being utilised by water utilities to assist in the development of more effective communication strategies that address directly the issues of primary concern to the public. It is envisaged that attitudes towards desalination and water resource management will change over time and this data set will provide a valuable benchmark for future studies.
Total Value: $1,074,494 (cash and in-kind contributions)
Principal Investigator: Dr Tanya King
Title: Public perception of, and response to, desalination in Australia
Length: 30 months
Personnel: 7 collaborators contributing 1.5 FTE
- 2013. Schibeci, R. A., and A. J. Williams. Science Communication and Desalination Research: Water experts’ views. International Journal of Science Education, Part B:1-15.
- 2013. 2nd Water Research Conference. Singapore.
- 2012. King, T., et al. Public Perceptions of, and Responses to, Desalination in Australia: A Report on Findings. Vol. 39. Alfred Deakin Research Institute Working Paper.
- 2012. King, T., and K. Murphy. Procedural Justice as a component of the Not In My Backyard (NIMBY) syndrome – Understanding opposition to the building of a desalination plant in Victoria, Australia. Vol. 27. Alfred Deakin Research Institute Working Paper.
- 2012. NCEDA Project Review Meeting. Perth, Australia.
- 2012. Public takes water with grain of salt. The Sydney Morning Herald.
- 2012. More consultation needed on desalination. ABC News.
- 2012. Solving water security: don’t ignore the public. The Conversation.
- 2012. Tapping the Turn: Water’s Social Dimensions. Canberra, Australia.
- 2011. OzWater Australia’s National Water Conference and Exhibition. Adelaide, Australia.
- 2011. 110th American Anthropology Association Annual Meeting – ‘Traces, Tidemarks and Legacies’. Montreal, Canada.