Water of the future

26. September 2022
Complex Conversations

Recycled water should be the drinking water source of the future for Auckland. This is a recommendation of a citizens' assembly held in the New Zealand city, whose proposals were presented to the public on 24 September 2022.

The assembly with 37 participants had been selected by the utility Watercare according to the criteria of age, gender, ethnicity, education and home ownership to represent a reflection of the city. Citizens' assembly members had deliberated on options for Auckland's future water supply in August and September 2022.

Meeting water needs beyond 2040

The assembly participants believe that recycled wastewater could help meet Auckland's water needs beyond 2040. Recycled water is already used as a drinking water source in Singapore and Namibia, but not in New Zealand so far.

Recycled water is cost effective and environmentally friendly, according to the citizens' report, as it helps reduce wastewater generation. However, the public needs to be educated about the harmlessness of this water.

Examine seawater desalination

The citizens' assembly also suggests that Watercare look into seawater desalination options and educate Aucklanders on how to reduce water consumption. Watercare will review the assembly recommendations and provide a response to those drawn.

Watercare's Head of Customer Services, Amanda Singleton, said the citizens' assembly subjects had spent a huge amount of time learning more about the water and wastewater industry from independent experts. "They’ve really put their hearts and souls into this process to make sure they found the best path forward for Auckland’s water future," Singleton said.

A rewarding experience

For many assembly members, she said, it has been a truly rewarding experience that has given them a new appreciation not only for the water that comes out of their taps, but also for the views and perspectives of their fellow Auckland citizens.

Citizens' assembly participants have also interacted with Māori to ensure that the views of New Zealand's indigenous people are taken into account, and to understand the principles of Te Mana o te Wai. These principles relate to the vital importance of clean water in maintaining the health of water bodies, ecosystems and communities that rely on healthy water for their livelihoods and wellbeing.

"Education is the most important thing"

Kelsey Orford from Point England, said she and her colleagues "felt a bit iffy" about the idea of recycled water. But she felt at ease after hearing from experts, who said the water Auckland takes from the Waikato River is not much different due to it having run off from farms and other pollutants.

"Our water’s not 100% clean. There always risk factors going into our water," Orford said. She said it made sense for Auckland to stop taking from the Waikato River and to have its own sustainable recycled water system. "Education is the most important thing in this, otherwise people will just think 'yuck, yuck'."

A say for all

For Simon Brotherson from Parnell, the trial has provided many insights. As a music student, he was originally interested in participating because of the financial allowance, but by the first day he had forgotten about the money because the water issues in Auckland interested him a lot. "For big things like water, these assemblies do capture Auckland’s demographics and gives everyone a say," Brotherson said.

The citizens' assembly was designed and delivered in collaboration with Koi Tū, the Centre for Informed Futures at the University of Auckland. Koi Tū is researching how different forms of citizen participation might work to best support better policy discussions and evidence-based debates in New Zealand.

Opening up democracy

Koi Tū Deputy Director Dr Anne Bardsley said processes such as citizens' assemblies, which are based on deliberative methods, emphasise the importance of factual debates with access to expertise and facts. She said they are designed to complement traditional structures and methods of consultations.

"We know that many citizens do not participate in consultations because of structural inequalities, language or educational barriers, or mistrust in the ‘system’. Opening up democracy to different voices should lead to more balanced, inclusive and well-informed outcomes," Bardsley explained.

"Better decisions on complex issues"

According to Bardsley, the citizens' assembly is just one of many new innovative approaches being explored by Koi Tū's team to engage citizens in discussions about complex issues in Aotearoa New Zealand.

“These inclusive processes might help us to make better decisions on complex issues where we face numerous trade-offs and uncertainties, and where the decisions have long-term consequences on how our future might play out.”

Resources under pressure

The background to the citizens' assembly is Auckland's growth combined with climate change. Both are putting pressure on limited resources. Watercare has planned supply upgrades until the mid-2040s to stay ahead of water demand. However, the company wants to start planning now for supply sources beyond 2040.

"It takes time to engage meaningfully on a complex topic, especially where there are trade-offs between economic, environmental and social impacts to consider. Once we’ve made a decision it will take time to build or create a new water supply and ensure we’ve followed all due process along the way. That’s why we’re starting now," Watercare's website states.

Involving community groups

"We saw an opportunity to try a different approach to decision making, where the values and lived experiences of diverse social groups can be brought to the table alongside the required technical knowledge".

Read more: Citizens' Assembly „Watercare“