Sunday 23rd October 2016                 Change text size:

Technology will solve our water problems — if we let it

water pipe By Dave Millet via Flickr

Water scarcity is a major challenge the world faces but many people dislike the idea of ‘recycled’ water, Daniel Faris looks at the reasons why and what can be done to change perceptions.

Water is one of the most important resources we need to survive. Without food we can last for days or even weeks, but without a proper supply of fresh water we’ll last only a fraction of that time. And yet, clean water is scarce in many third-world countries. It’s a problem that’s growing harder and harder to solve with current strategies, volunteers, and resources.

A 2012 community report compiled and written for the US state department claimed that within the next decade, “many countries important to the US will experience water problems—shortages, poor water quality, or floods—that will risk instability and state failure”. While alarming, this is actually old news; water has been a scarce resource in many regions of the world for decades now.

A new venture, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, may be able to change all that. It’s called the Omniprocessor, and it’s capable of converting even raw sewage into clean drinking water. The main plant is based in Seattle for now, but eventually the technology will be used elsewhere to improve living conditions in many of those third-world countries that lack a clean water supply.

It’s promising news indeed, but there’s one momentous hurdle left. It has nothing to do with the research and funding behind such a project. Instead, it has everything to do with human psychology.

If someone handed you a glass of crystal clear water and told you that, while it was safe to drink now, it had been human waste just a couple minutes ago, would you drink it? You’d probably at least have to give it some thought, right? Well, Gates did give it some thought—and then downed a whole glass of the stuff.

As Gates so enthusiastically confirmed, “It’s water.”

On his personal blog, he wrote, “It tasted as good as any I’ve had out of a bottle. And having studied the engineering behind it, I would happily drink it every day. It’s that safe.”

Despite the fact that Gates has made public appearances where he drank the recycled water, it seems that many people are still turning their noses up at this potentially game-changing technology.

Studies show that recycled water is considered taboo

Recycled water is clean. In fact, it’s cleaner than unfiltered tap water, but even after learning this, it’s likely that many of us still won’t want to touch it.

Researchers Paul Rozin, Brent Haddad, Carol Nemeroff, and Paul Slovic hosted a series of studies where they polled over two thousand American adults, along with hundreds of college students. The purpose of the study was to collect a general consensus about the idea of recycled water. The subsequent findings were published in January’s edition of Judgment and Decision Making.

In the first study group, adults from five different cities were asked to divulge their backgrounds, their political and personal views, and their thoughts on ‘recycled water’. The results showed that most adults were extremely uncomfortable with the idea. Even when it was explained to them that recycled water is actually safer to drink than unfiltered tap water, they still expressed a desire to avoid it.

“The problem isn’t making the recycled water, but getting people to drink it,” Rozin said. “And it’s a problem that isn’t going to be solved by engineers. It will be solved by psychologists.”

Some 26% of the study participants were so grossed out by the idea of turning waste into potable water that they stated for the record, “It is impossible for recycled water to be treated to a high enough quality that I would want to use it.” In other words, it doesn’t matter how much evidence you can provide to support the idea that recycled water is safe to drink and exceptionally clean; most people will not even entertain the thought of drinking it.

This phenomenon is commonly referred to as contagion. Feelings of disgust are often deeply seated in our psyche, and exist for more than just emotional output; they exist to protect our bodies from harm. Instinctively, humans are programmed to find things gross because these elements can actually harm us. We’re aware of this on a primal level. In most cases, disgust can signal a dangerous substance, chemical or environmental, that is likely to harm us physically.

Unfortunately, a common side effect of disgust is that it can permeate our emotions and cause us to become turned off to things that aren’t really dangerous. According to Rozin, in a prior study he conducted, participants refused to drink a favourite beverage that had been ‘contaminated’ after a ‘fully sterilised’ cockroach was dipped inside. They were so disgusted by the insect and their predispositions that rationality was abandoned altogether. They absolutely would not drink the beverage, despite the fact that it would cause them no harm.

Another example? Vaccinations. With outbreaks of the flu and measles becoming a concern in the US, debates over the safety of vaccinations has reached a fever pitch, despite the near scientific consensus regarding their safety. Incidentally, many of the vaccines we’ve come to rely on contain water as a main ingredient, which is often purified from a variety of sources before making its way into our medications. It’s a double dose of potential (and largely unnecessary) controversy.

In the case of recycled water, being disgusted by it is a natural but absolutely ridiculous response. This is because, as Rozin points out, all water is sewage at some point, “Rain is water that used to be in someone’s toilet, and nobody seems to mind.” The real problem is that recycled water is a bit more obvious than rain water. Rozin says this is exactly why people are blatantly refusing the idea.

“If it’s obvious—take shit water, put it through a filter—then people are upset.”

How the ‘gross’ factor can be solved

In that case, how can such a problem be overcome? How can we reprogram our minds to accept that recycled water — recycled sewage — is ‘pure’?

Strangely enough, it may be as easy as adopting some clever marketing techniques. Not the kind that would see celebrities drinking the recycled water in public, but the kind that helps restructure our beliefs.

During his water study, Rozin found that 39% of participants are more willing to try recycled water if it’s held in an aquifer for a period of ten years. Some 40% admitted they’d be willing to try it after it travels a stretch of one hundred miles, as opposed to just one. For some peculiar reason, distance seems to reduce the ‘disgust’ factor.

Probably the best solution is to offer a more detailed explanation to the general public about what’s involved in the filtration process and how much the water actually has to go through before it’s considered drinkable. Of course, Bill Gates has been bragging that the Omniprocessor converts sewage and filth into drinking water in just five minutes. Could a marketing campaign that explains the water recycling process reframe our feelings of disgust? It’s possible.

Then again, maybe public appearances by celebrities really could help shed the stigma surrounding recycled water. Many of us respect Gates for the amazing things he’s done, both for the world of technology and for the modern world as a philanthropist. Watching someone like that gulp down a glass of recycled water may encourage others to give it a try.

Daniel Faris studied business and creative writing at Susquehanna University, and has been writing for a global audience ever since. He is a contributor for the London School of Economics and Political Science, and in his spare time he blogs about politics, technology, and progressive music.

Photo: Dave Millet via Flickr

Further reading:

Half of world could face extreme water scarcity by 2095

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