Citizens’ assembly recommends direct recycled water for Auckland’s future water source

Participants at the Watercare citizens' assembly.

A citizens’ assembly tasked with deciding what should be Tāmaki Makaurau’s next future water source has determined direct recycled water would be the best solution to meet the city’s water needs beyond 2040.

The assembly – a group of 37 Aucklanders representative of the people of the city – based on age, gender, ethnicity, education and home ownership – presented their recommendation to Watercare’s senior leadership team and board chair Margaret Devlin at Auckland University on September 24.  This follows a series of workshops in which the group explored six different options, and the implications of each.

The group’s report of recommendations reads: “We recommend the implementation of direct recycled water as the next source of water for Auckland. Engaging the Auckland public in education on the safety and quality of the water is necessary to facilitate acceptance.”

The group reached the conclusion that this option was “cost effective in relation to other options, environmentally friendly because it assists with reducing wastewater” and it “provides another source of water to secure Auckland’s water supply”.

Direct recycled water – where wastewater is treated to drinking water quality – is already used for drinking purposes in places like Singapore and Namibia. It is not yet used as a source of drinking water in New Zealand.

Watercare chief customer officer Amanda Singleton says the group’s recommendations will now be reviewed and considered by Watercare’s team, before a formal response is made.

“Right at the beginning of this process we made a commitment to our assembly members, that we would have to have a really good reason to not go ahead with their recommendations. We’ll take a bit of time now to digest all the recommendations before we formally respond to them.

“We know the group hasn’t reached their decisions lightly. A huge amount of time has been spent learning about the water and wastewater industry from independent experts in the field.

Over a period of eight weeks they have been exploring all the potential options, and the pros and cons that come with each. They’ve talked to mana whenua to make sure the views of Māori are considered, and the principles of Te Mana o te Wai are understood.

“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. I think for many assembly members it’s been a really rewarding experience that’s given them not just a new appreciation for the water that comes out of their taps, but also for the views and perspectives of their fellow Aucklanders.”

Other recommendations include:

  • Watercare continues to investigate the feasibility of desalination
  • Watercare provides education and resources to consumers in reducing water usage.

A minority report also recommends two or three people from the assembly sit on Watercare steering committee focussed on future water sources.

It’s understood to be the first citizens’ assembly in New Zealand for public decision-making of this kind.

Singleton says Watercare opted for a citizens’ assembly to deliberate on Tāmaki Makaurau’s next major water source as it’s a decision that will impact all Aucklanders far into the future.

“This will impact all of us, and our children and grandchildren for decades to come so we really wanted to know what future water sources sits most comfortably with our customers. For a decision like this, it was never going to be enough to send out a survey or encourage people to submit their views online. With a citizens’ assembly, participants have the time to delve deep into the topic, deliberate over the different solutions and then come to a consensus decision.”

The assembly is designed and held in collaboration with Koi Tū: The Centre for Informed Futures at the University of Auckland. The workshops were held at the university’s Fale Pasifika.

A core part of Koi Tū’s work is exploring how different forms of citizens’ engagement could work to support better policy conversations and evidence-informed debate in New Zealand.

Koi Tū deputy director Dr Anne Bardsley says processes based on deliberative methods, such as citizens’ assemblies, emphasise the importance of talking issues through with access to expertise and evidence. They are designed to sit alongside and compliment traditional structures and methods of consultation.

“It was not an easy journey but the fact that the assembly members reached a consensus on something that was initially very contentious shows how powerful a process like this can be.

We’ve learnt a lot about how citizens approach these complex issues when given time to ask questions, deliberate and work towards a consensus.”

Dr Bardsley says the citizens’ assembly is one of a range of new innovative approaches the team is exploring at Koi Tū, as they seek to engage citizens in the discussion about the complex issues facing Aotearoa New Zealand.

She says traditional consultation by submission does not reach the diversity that exists in Tāmaki Makaurau or in Aotearoa.

“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.

“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.”

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See also:

Added 23 November 2022:
Learn more about the Citizens’ Assembly(video from Watercare):

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