If people don’t trust experts, can they trust water?

Published November 24th, 2016

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Insight from Christopher Gasson, GWI publisher

I was in Boston last week for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Water Summit. It was a fascinating event focused on the future of the water utility. One exchange, however, seemed to say something discomforting about the outlook for the water sector.

On the stage was Joe Cotruvo, one of the leading water quality scientists in the US, a man responsible for much of the thinking behind the Environmental Protection Agency’s water quality regulation, and someone who has been involved in assessing the impact of the Flint water crisis. Next to him was an MIT professor. In a provocative mood, I asked Cotruvo to confirm that people in the room who were aged over 40 were likely to have been exposed to far higher levels of lead in their blood in their youth than people in Flint during the peak of the crisis. He confirmed that the average blood lead level (BLL) in America used to be 15μg/dL, but that since unleaded petrol and other measures had been introduced, this had fallen to 3μg/dL, which was the average BLL for children in Flint until the crisis, during which, in the affected parts of the city, the average had risen to 5μg/dL, and then returned to 3μg/dL. The MIT professor would not believe him. “Are you saying that the doctors have got it wrong?” she asked. “No,” he replied. “But I saw pictures of children with red spots all over them!” she continued. “I am saying that it was not caused by lead in the water”. She still wasn’t buying it.

It was an electric exchange. The Flint water crisis (which involved heightened levels of lead in domestic water supplies as a result of the local utility switching its source of supply) has become highly politicised. Film-maker Michael Moore described it as attempted genocide, perpetrated by the white Republican governor of Michigan on the largely poor and black population of Flint. The crisis became a rallying point for both candidates in the presidential election.

This level of politicisation can only really be supported by exaggerating the public health impact of the heightened levels of lead in the Flint water supply. Cotruvo suggested that one explanation of the relatively limited impact in terms of blood lead levels was that few people actually drank the water from the faucet during the crisis. Nobody seemed interested in taking up this point during the discussion.

During the Brexit campaign here in the UK, one of those leading the campaign to get out of the EU used the phrase “we’ve had enough of experts”. It seemed to summarise the new politics. “Experts” are part of the conspiracy of the educated elite to suppress the interests of the uneducated classes. Free trade, the financial crisis, and immigration are all part of that conspiracy.

What I hadn’t realised was that the erosion of trust in experts was not just a phenomenon of the white working class. Even MIT professors can be affected by it, where an issue has become as politicised as Flint.

What it means from a water perspective is that it is going to become more and more difficult to convince water utility customers that their water is safe to drink. In this month’s magazine we’ve got a graphic showing that total spending on water utilities is growing at 3.5% per year, while total spending on bottled water, point-of-use water systems and tanker supply is growing at 9%. These private domestic solutions to water spending are likely to exceed total utility spending by 2030.

It means that we are going to see a continuing divergence in the performance of water utilities. Utilities like DC Water, Singapore’s PUB, the Water Corporation of Western Australia, and Amsterdam Waternet can build brands which will compete head-to-head with Evian and Fiji Water and come out tops in terms of trust, but the majority will struggle. Building a brand (and what it stands for) is a new challenge for most utilities, but going forward it is going to be an essential utility function. Without it, utilities will fail to attract the financial support they need.

I am a strong believer in utility services, but at the same time I am a realist about the future. With that in mind, I can announce that our next research report is going to focus on the market for decentralised water and wastewater systems, including point-of-use, commercial water, and packaged wastewater treatment plants. It is due for publication at the end of the next quarter.