“Yuck!” –The Emotional Reaction to Recycled Water

Recycled drinking water (RDW) produces a strong visceral reaction commonly referred to as the “yuck” factor. Yet, policymakers must find a way to increase acceptability amongst communities as freshwater supplies get increasingly scarce. A research paper examines the role of emotions in two case studies; Windhoek, Namibia and Los Angeles, California.   

By 2030, the world will face a 40 percent water deficit caused by population growth, increased urbanisation, climate change and shrinking freshwater supplies. Indeed, 5 billion people will be living in urban areas with hundreds of millions living in one of the world’s 41 mega-cities, up from 28 today. 

Given these realities, the sustainability of water sources has become a matter of increasing concern. Sustainable implies adequate water in sufficient quality and quantity to meet societal needs, and importantly, a source that avoids shifting environmental burdens to other geographic areas or future generations.

In this context, recycled drinking water (RDW)–a process of treating wastewater for drinking purposes—has become an increasingly important source of water supply.

Two potable water reuse options are getting popular: direct potable reuse (DPR) and indirect potable recharge (IPR). DPR is the process of treating wastewater and returning it to the raw water supply.  The treated water is distributed immediately upstream of a drinking water treatment plant or directly into the potable water distribution system.

In IPR, the treated wastewater is discharged into an environmental water resource such as a river, lake, or aquifer.

RDW makes economic sense

Besides being a policy necessity in a world of increasing water security, RDW makes eminent economic sense. First, recycling is economically efficient as wastewater is often found at the source of use, reducing transport costs especially if the cities are far inland.

Second, there are savings in the urban water supply and wastewater systems as costs of diversion structures, drought storage and treatment and nutrient removal costs for discharging to sensitive waters.

Third, although the cost of desalination has decreased considerably over the years, water reuse is still generally cheaper than desalination, which is generally more energy-intensive.

Globally, policymakers have been pushing for a greater use of recycled water. The city of San Diego in California has recently cleared a proposal for wastewater treatment plants, Pure Water San Diego. Perth in Australia is pumping recycled wastewater into groundwater aquifers to combat climate change. In Singapore, five NEWater plants supply up to 40 percent of Singapore’s current water needs. By 2060, NEWater is expected to meet up to 55 percent of Singapore’s future water demand. The state of Arizona in the US may permit DPR this year.


Talk of filling glasses with wastewater and people get squeamish.

People are reluctant to accept RDW on emotional grounds; a visceral psychological reaction commonly referred to as the “yuck” factor.  This emotional reaction is perhaps one of the biggest stumbling blocks in the acceptability of RDW for communities.

What then are the differences in emotions—both in content and intensity—between the many cases of failure and the very rare instances of success? 

Windhoek, Namibia implemented the first large-scale project in RDW in 1968 in. Since then, technology to treat wastewater to drinking standards has become much cheaper.  Despite this, Windhoek remains the only case of DPR.  Altogether, there are fewer than 15 large-scale IPR projects in the world compared with some 3300 non-potable reuse projects (non potable water is water that is not suitable for drinking but depending on its quality can be used for other purposes).

Many IPR projects are in the United States with half of these projects implemented before the 1980s. In the US, California has the highest number of IPR projects with the largest and most successful water purification project, the Orange County Groundwater Replenishment System serving 2.2 million residents.

Namibia remains of the most successful cases of RDW. However, in outlining the reasons for the apparent public acceptance of recycled drinking water, it must be remembered that, in 1968, Namibia was not an independent country but a colony of South Africa.

In the era of apartheid, the black majority may have had little say in the decisions made by the Government; correspondingly, the Government at the time may have felt it could afford some risk. Yet, the municipality of Windhoek was successful in getting consumers to use treated wastewater for potable needs by the maintenance of stringent quality and health standards, a policy of transparency and accountability.

The Government of Namibia was also quick to address any safety issues relating to water—for example, in 1968, a rumour about an outbreak of typhoid was quickly countered. Strong institutions, tight monitoring and the strong safety record were thought to have been useful in overcoming initial disapproval of recycled water.

Yet, in most parts of the world, RDW meets with severe resistance from media and communities alike. In East Valley, in Los Angeles, California, the reaction to implementing RDW was quite different. LA, which is located near a desert, receives its water mainly from the LA Aqueduct system, as well as the San Fernando groundwater basin and the Colorado River. As the population in LA increased, so did tensions with Owens Valley residents as they competed for water.

In 1991, the LADWP explored the option of RDW seriously. The plan was to take 50,000 acre-feet per year of reclaimed water from the Donald C. Tillman Water Reclamation Plant (Tillman Plant) and blend it with existing groundwater in the northeastern part of the San Fernando Valley area for recharge.

Despite the fact that the US Environmental Protection Agency and the City Council approved the project—after an environmental impact study was done—the project failed to take off due to a huge public outcry. On 16 April 2000, a newspaper published an article with the title “Tapping Toilet Water”—shortly after, a “toilet-to-tap” label stuck to the project. Soon, other homeowners and neighbourhood groups voiced their opposition. The DWP shelved the project.

There are efforts now to review the project. In 2013, the construction of an Advanced Water Purification Facility (AWPF) as part of the Groundwater Replenishment (GWR) project was proposed. This facility would conduct cutting-edge treatment of wastewater from the Tillman Plant, and this purified water would be used for groundwater replenishment.

What then are the differences in emotions—both in content and intensity—between the many cases of failure and the very rare instances of success?  There is little doubt that emotions impact policy making and outcomes; but to understand their role in policy change, they need to be studied not just as a psychological phenomenon (that is of “raw emotions”) but as elements that require interpretation, understanding and application in “one unified process” within policy-making.

In light of increasing uncertainty and variability, water recycling and reuse continue to be the most sustainable option because of its weather resilience, availability in urban settings and the possibilities of environmental, energy and financial savings. Understanding the dynamics of its emotional dimensions will allow policymakers to react and manage implementations of RDW, which will become increasingly salient in the future.

Radhika Dhawan Puri is the editor of WaterPolicy.online, a blog managed by the Institute of Water Policy, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore. 

This op-ed is based on the research paper The Role of Emotions in Drinking Recycled Water. Access the paper and read the paper summary here.  


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