event 22 Apr 2020

Article // Alternative water resources and the illusion of control

This article originally appeared on the MAGIC Nexus website (https://magic-nexus.eu/) and has been reposted here with their friendly permission. By Manrique, D.R., Cabello, V., and Pereira, A. G. (2020). It applies the theory of the "illusion of control" to recent field experiences gained in a case study with Alternative Water Resources (AWR).

category Implementation and Case Studies tag Water tag Desalination
Magicnexus eu

The theory of the illusion of control was developed within the psychological sciences during the 70s by Ellen Langer. The illusion of control is defined as an expectancy of a personal success probability that exceeds the objective probability of the outcome (Langer, E., 1975). In other words, it is the tendency of humans to believe they have full control over situations that actually exceed their capacity of control.

The overestimation of the efficacy of technological solutions to address complex situations in water governance is one example. Under this ‘illusion’, Alternative Water Resources (AWR), namely desalinated and reclaimed waters, have emerged in the last decades as the new panacea for agricultural production in regions facing water scarcity. The construction of AWR as a technological fix to water scarcity needs examination.

In the Canary Islands, we explored narratives about the feasibility and desirability of these technologies with a wide range of actors. Through an integrated methodology combining quantitative, qualitative and participatory analysis, the following questions were investigated: what role do AWR play in the recovery or reduction of pressures on natural sources? Is it plausible and desirable to implement these technologies within future scenarios of climate change, energy crisis or hardening of export conditions? What role do ‘alternative waters’ play in agricultural development if we consider current limitations such as its price, quality, emerging pollutants and impacts on the soil, and the environment?

Similarly to many other Southern European areas, several dynamics have historically contributed to increasing the pressure on fresh water resources in this region: population growth (local and stationary), strong competition among economic sectors (industrial, tourism and agriculture) and the gradual decrease of the average annual rainfall, anticipating the effects of climate change. This is a complex situation which faces different types of uncertainty and clearly exceeds the governance capacity of regional and local water-related actors.

In our study, we observed how the invited actors justify the need for AWR by referring to water scarcity, which is attributed to the depletion of freshwater resources and the effects of climate change. Other drivers for water scarcity (population pressure, sectoral competition) are mentioned only in alternative narratives held by a few actors with low stakes and lower capacity to articulate them. Moreover, we found narratives that questioned the causal connection between the use of AWR and the recovery of freshwater resources in the absence of other more comprehensive measures.

Under such complex social-ecological situation, expecting that AWR by themselves will solve all water problems is most likely an overestimation of efficacy, even more if the risks associated with the exploitation of these technologies are ignored. The framing of AWR as a panacea to govern the waters in the Canary Islands allows to maintain the status quo and avoiding the question of what is wrong in the relationship between water and the agro-economic model of the Canary Islands, while keeping the illusion of control.


Langer, E. J. (1975). The illusion of control. Journal of personality and social psychology, 32(2), 311.


March 2020


© MAGIC Nexus


MAGIC Nexus: Alternative water resources and the illusion of control


Stephanie Bilgram
Global Nexus Secretariat


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