Water restrictions have a social cost

New research from La Trobe University’s Albury Wodonga campus has found that a majority of Australian’s are fed up with endless campaigns about restricting water use and are prepared to pay to have more water inspectors on the beat to catch their neighbours.

water-drip‘One of the findings of my research is that Australians have grown tired of the endless stream of information on water constantly thrust their way,’ says economist Bethany Cooper, who obtained data from over 500 households in Victoria and New South Wales for work towards her PhD.

The households surveyed included communities that have endured water restrictions for some time, like Bendigo and Goulburn, and others where restrictions are relatively recent.  More than half of the sample came from Sydney and Melbourne.

‘A majority of households would actually pay extra on their water bill in order to be able to ‘dob-in’ their recalcitrant neighbours, which is a surprising find but one that also illustrates the power of spite to motivate people,’ says Ms Cooper.  

Restrictions over the use of water, in one form or another, are now applied in almost every major urban centre in Australia, and these restrictions seem likely to remain part of urban water management for some time.  

‘My goal is to understand the type of approach the community prefers, as this could be important in developing effective relief strategies and responses to drought. In addition, the implementation of a more preferred restriction regime will likely have lower political costs,’ she says.

‘The results highlight that the social costs of water restrictions to the community at large are often underestimated.  Do we really want to promote a society based on stronger policing and informing on our neighbours?’ she asks.

Ms Cooper’s research is part of a broader research program at La Trobe led by water economics expert and Executive Director of La Trobe University Albury-Wodonga campus, Dr Lin Crase.  The general findings from the program, which analyses water policy, are that better arrangements for managing water between rural users and urban communities are urgently needed.

‘One of the perverse outcomes of water restrictions has been that all manner of people are now experts on water availability and the appropriate actions that should be taken to share scarce water resources around,’ says Dr Crase.

‘These views cover all spectrums – rural folk convinced that unworthy activities like watering gardens in Melbourne should be outlawed, through to metropolitan folk ‘beating up’ on each other about what constitutes ‘wise water use’.  Unfortunately, not much forethought seems to go into the formulation of these opinions and popularist views, often espoused in the press, frequently make little hydrological, economic or social sense,’ says Dr Crase.

A copy of Bethany Cooper’s paper entitled “Does anybody like water restrictions? Some observations on the value of spite in Australian urban communities” is available on request.

Ms Cooper’s study is part of the research agenda for La Trobe’s Institute for Social and Environmental Sustainability.


Beth Cooper
Phone: 0421 981 414
Email: b.cooper@latrobe.edu.au

Dr Lin Crase
Phone: (02) 6024 9834
Email: l.crase@latrobe.edu.au