Sustainable urban water systems are likely to be hybrids of centralized and decentralized infrastructure, managed as an integrated system in water-sensitive cities. The technology for many of these systems is available. However, social and institutional barriers, which can be understood as deeply embedded risk perceptions, have impeded their implementation. Risk perceptions within the water sector are often unrecognized or unacknowledged, despite their role in risk management generally in informing value judgments and specifically in ranking risks to achieve management objectives. There has been very little examination of the role of these risk perceptions in advancing more sustainable water supply management through the adoption of alternative sources. To address this gap, this article presents a framework that can be used as a tool for understanding risk perceptions. The framework is built on the relational theory of risk and presents the range of human phenomena that might influence the perception of an “object at risk” in relation to a “risk object.” It has been synthesized from a critical review of theoretical, conceptual, and empirical studies of perception broadly and risk perception specifically, and interpreted in relation to water practitioners. For a water practitioner, the risk object might be an alternative water system, a component, a process, or a technology, and the object at risk could be public or environmental health, profitability, or professional reputation. This framework has two important functions: to allow practitioners to understand their own and others’ risk perceptions, which might differ, and to inform further empirical research.
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