Social inequality and water use

How does inequality transform our relationship to water? Stathi Paxinos spoke with Dr Paul Satur to find out.

inequality transformation and our relationship to water

When Monash Sustainable Development Institute research fellow Paul Satur began examining how water was used and valued in Australian cities, he expected he would find differences between the attitudes of households in the most disadvantaged and affluent suburbs. He just did not expect they would be so big.

"I got a really good cross section, and yeah, that was a real surprise," Dr Satur said of the four-year study of low, middle and high socio-economic suburbs in Melbourne and Perth that he co-authored with Professor Jo Lindsay, from Monash University's School of Social Sciences.

Of particular note was the difference in value that residents placed on water, and the motivations behind them, which Dr Satur said, were often overlooked by conventional thinking.

"The way we deliver water resource management programs and initiatives can often be a one-size-fits-all approach, but we're dealing with really diverse, unique communities," he said.

"The way we deliver water resource management programs and initiatives can often be a one-size-fits-all approach, but we're dealing with really diverse, unique communities."
- Paul Satur

"It is about understanding … the way we connect with water, the way we value it and how these vary across different communities and what that might mean in terms of engaging communities in transitioning to water sensitive cities and  promoting and building what we call a water-sensitive citizenry."

Residents of the well-heeled suburbs of Melbourne's Camberwell and Perth's Cottesloe, for example, largely saw water as a resource to be used for enjoyment, comfort and convenience, such as, filling pools, and keeping-up-with-the-Joneses pursuits of maintaining beautiful gardens and clean cars.

But, for those in the disadvantaged neighbourhoods of Broadmeadows in Melbourne's north and Armadale in Perth's south east, water was "intrinsically connected to the more immediate daily needs of basic health and well-being".

"Often water was talked about (in disadvantaged communities) for its value in upholding physical and mental health, (with) older residents who can't afford to always go to the physio or the chiropractor, having hot showers to get their backs working," Dr Satur said.

"One mother said the shower was five minutes out of her day to just unwind. There were other people who talked about really valuing their front garden as kind of a safe haven. They would say 'I'm tired of dealing with all of the crime and all of the stuff that's going on. This garden is my solitude, my place of refuge'.

"There was also a very strong attachment to water affordability, which was something that was not really seen or talked about in great detail in moderately advantaged and advantaged communities where people said ‘water is just way too cheap, we pay nothing for it  and until you charge us more we're probably not going to worry about it' ".

The study found the suburbs, regardless of their socio-economic standings, had a mix of residents who used, and did not use, water saving devices. Dr Satur said water management programs could therefore deliver greater benefits to communities and the environment by more effectively considering the different social, cultural, and financial backgrounds of households and communities.

"When you think about things like rain water tanks, household water saving initiatives and water efficient showerheads, there's embodied meanings, materials, knowledge and understandings behind all of these that are required if people are to effectively access them," Dr Satur said.

"When you think about things like rain water tanks, household water saving initiatives and water efficient showerheads, there's embodied meanings, materials, knowledge and understandings behind all of these that are required if people are to effectively access them"
- Paul Satur

"…When we look at different community sub-sections and the resources that people have in their communities, their lived experiences, needs and capacities we can start to understand the cultural and environmental contexts that they live in … and see how water resource planning and management initiatives play out and affect people's day to day."

Dr Satur's inspiration for the study, which was published in Local Environment in April, came from his time at a Melbourne water authority when he faced challenges engaging different communities, including some of the city's most disadvantaged, with existing programs.

As part of the authority's initiatives, it offered free educational talks and supported community ‘citizen-science' groups and events, to raise awareness of the value of local creeks and waterways. These proved popular with schools and communities in Melbourne's wealthy, leafy eastern suburbs. But, time and again, for communities in more challenging or disadvantaged circumstances, the response was more along the lines of "no, we're not interested. We've got other priorities'."

He said this experience seemed to reflect a wider "social phenomena" where there was a far greater level of "environmental literacy and engagement" among wealthier suburbs and got him thinking about how water policies could better support and empower those in other neighbourhoods.

"It became increasingly obvious that we were delivering education programs and building capacities for communities that were quite often already well educated and financially wealthy," Dr Satur said.

"… I hope this work contributes to supporting approaches to water servicing and water sensitive outcomes that not only relate to technology, but also take in social and cultural processes that respond to community experiences and needs."

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Image of Paul Satur


Dr Paul Satur

Lecturer, Monash Water Sensitive Cities

Paul Satur is an early career environmental and social science researcher and practitioner with the Centre for Water Sensitive Cities as part of the Monash Sustainable Development Institute