Winning Hearts and Minds to Water Reuse Singapore's NEWater Visitor Centre
As the world grapples with a growing water supply crisis, cities, states—indeed nations—are looking for answers. "Where will the water come from?" "Will there be enough?"
The fact is that the amount of water on the earth has been, is, and will forever be the same. What has changed is the earth’s population, over the last century. This has placed an inordinate amount of pressure on “fresh” water supplies. The writing is on the wall. We are going to have to learn how to “reuse” water in bold new ways. This is easier said than done because it will require more than breakthrough water treatment technologies. It will take shifts in our mental and emotional perceptions of water and, in particular, water reuse. Unfortunately, even though reuse technologies are proven to be safe, misunderstanding and fear often drive the decision to reject their use. This is where Singapore’s NEWater Visitor Centre comes in.
PUB (Public Utilities Board), the national water agency of Singapore, understood that in order to “raise the bar” for water reuse, it needed to win the hearts and minds of the public. When it began to look at options for expanding water supply, PUB recognized early on that public perception would be critical to launching a successful indirect potable reuse program. As a result, PUB committed to a brave new approach to water reuse education: the NEWater Visitor Centre. This 24,000-square-foot (2,200-square-meter) facility was designed and constructed in tandem with a new 7-million-gallon- (32,000-cubic-meter-) per-day reclamation plant: the Bedok NEWater Factory.
The Bedok NEWater Factory was the first water reuse facility in the world to incorporate a world-class visitor center. The mission was a critical one: build public awareness and acceptance of leading-edge technologies that treat reclaimed, used water to a standard up to—and beyond—World Health Organization potable standards. PUB knew it faced a formidable challenge: Indirect potable use of treated effluent has historically been among the most difficult reuses for the public to accept. Creating a dispassionate understanding and allaying fears would require a remarkable marriage of advanced technologies and carefully crafted messages and experiences.
By drawing on research in the fields of psychology, perception, learning, and interpretation, the design for the visitor’s center was to incorporate all of the senses—sight, touch, sound, etc.—with scientific logic. This sensory/logic integration was central to the goal of forging emotional and intellectual connections between water and water treatment technologies. The idea was to explain the technologies that go into the manufacture of reclaimed water—termed “NEWater”—from treated used water, and to build awareness and acceptance of the product and the process that manufactures it.
The planning process was a collaborative effort among PUB staff, CH2M Hill engineering, and exhibit and communications specialists. Recognizing that the aesthetic experience was as important as the exhibits themselves, architects and interior designers sought to combine elements of pure engineering with spacious, comfortable, “feel good” spaces. Key messages painstakingly were hammered out for each of the six “zones” (see diagram) and for each individual display. Choices then were made on media and format of presentations (electronic, tactile, etc.). Because of the predisposition of young Singaporeans to use electronic media, the design emphasized interactive computer, video, and electronic presentations.
The center has an L-shaped layout, fully integrated into the reclamation plant, that leads visitors through a series of six sensory-based exhibit zones. State-of-the-art interactive computer touchscreens and world-class videos combine with visually captivating graphic panels and a view of the actual NEWater Factory to help bring the key messages home.
Since its opening in 2003, the center has attracted over 380,000 visitors, an average of more than 2,200 visitors per week. In fact, it is a popular tourist attraction and recently was awarded the “Best Sightseeing Leisure/Education Programme” award at the 20th Singapore Tourism Awards. This success demonstrates that—when done thoughtfully with an eye toward entertaining as well as informing—water resource education facilities actually can become a public attraction, in and of themselves.
The NEWater Visitor Centre is a shining example of how successfully to align technology and public education to create broad-based understanding and acceptance of reuse technologies. This alignment is critical if we wish to build community understanding and support for water reuse technologies. Long-term acceptance of reuse appears inexorably tied to growth in public understanding of the preciousness of fresh water as well as an appreciation of the fact that all water is and always has been “used.” As basic understanding and trust of reuse grows, so too will long-term public acceptance. Few water utilities thus far have engaged their citizens in a holistic dialogue about water and watersheds. The NEWater experience provides valuable insights into the complex dynamics surrounding water reuse, and h
Linda Macpherson is vice president, senior water policy planner, public involvement specialist, and reuse technologist for CH2M Hill in Portland, OR.