Despite a severe drought, Americans don't seem to notice that water is at low ebb. New GlobeScan Radar survey results show that American concern about fresh water shortages counterintuitively has hit new lows, especially compared to a year ago. The proportion of Americans now saying water shortages constitute a "very serious" issue has declined from more than half (54 percent) in 2013 to just over one-third (35 percent) in 2014, and is down from its highest level in 2010, when 63 percent felt that the issue was "very serious."
This record-low concern about water appears puzzling in the face of the historic drought plaguing California. However, concern among respondents in the Western U.S. still remains relatively high (54 percent saying "very serious"). Yet in the rest of the U.S., only 30 percent of respondents now view shortages of fresh water as "very serious." This is even more puzzling, given that the current U.S. Drought Monitor shows large areas of the U.S. — even beyond California — under abnormally dry conditions or experiencing drought. Indeed, circumstances are not too far removed from the even more extensive drought situation experienced in 2012 and early 2013.
Precipitation skews public perception
A closer look at the exact timing of our survey data collection reveals implications for those tasked with managing the issue. At the time of the survey, large parts of the U.S. were suffering from the descent of the "polar vortex" — an event preceded in many areas by heavy rain, leaving large swathes of the U.S. under deep snow. Asked under these conditions about how serious shortages of fresh water are, it is perhaps not surprising that people elsewhere viewed the issue as less serious as did those in California, even while hydrological and meteorological data showed longer-term dryness to be much more national in scale. It seems the apparent absence of an immediate drought threat helped quell concern over water access.
Compared with residents of other countries, those in the U.S. do seem to be much less concerned about water shortages, at least until it shows up in their back yard (as it has in California). Compare the U.S. to the U.K., where almost half of British respondents are very concerned about water shortages, even though much of that country was experiencing severe flooding when our survey was conducted there in early 2014. Compared with Brazil, where access to fresh water affects consumers more directly, concern in both the U.K. and U.S. is sharply lower.
Brace your business for an about-face in public opinion
What does this volatility in public concern about water mean for business? Companies should be proactive and not rely on fickle public opinion to set priorities. Businesses should demonstrate proactive stewardship: Public concern can shift quickly when drought conditions return to large swathes of the U.S., as they are fairly likely to do, and any business perceived to be using water irresponsibly may find itself the target of an irate public.
The broader reality is that business tends to be more water-intensive than many of our survey participants care to realize, and it won't take much for customers to wake up to that fact. You can be assured that utilities, their regulators and others who determine access and pricing for water will react with haste when they do.
Water glass image by Trebz via Flickr