Water Scarcity and Public Perceptions

Phil McLean

Obviously and quite rightly, water is the topic of our latest newsletter. You would have to be living under a rock to be unaware of the dire state of our water supply, right? We all understand the problem and see water the same way, don’t we? Well, actually, the reality would very likely surprise you quite a bit!

You see, I’m on several water-related forums and involved with a few community organisations and what I hear about the public attitude to the current situation reflects a huge range of attitudes. The interesting thing is that most of these people feel like they are ‘pulling in the same direction’ as each other. We are ALL contributors to- and at the same time victims of the same crisis, so there’s a certain bonding that happens to people assailed by a common foe. But if you listen deeply to the conversations and attitudes, you will notice that ‘Common Perceptions’ (much like ‘common sense’, I fear) are not common at all!

I believe that some of the strange perceptions I’ve encountered stem from our current information gathering strategies. Either because there is simply so much information about everything all the time or we’ve become lazy, but we seem to prefer to absorb flashy headlines and the first few lines of bold text, then we generally join-the-dots in our minds and complete the article in our heads. The same phenomenon supports the current fake news phenomenon, but our laziness means the news doesn’t even have to be fake for us to get the story wrong!

Over the last few weeks as the crisis deepens, I see all manner of ‘solutions’ being touted or executed. People in my network are happy to extract from the river and I’ve even had it explained that this abstraction is actually an environmental service, in that this person was keeping visiting birds and insects alive (by watering their lawn with river water). This person seemed genuinely shocked that I might find that absurd and was slow to understand the abstraction implications for the variety of RIVER life that would be impacted (let alone the legal ramifications). But I guess it all finally made sense to me when I was once told that “once the water has flowed past my house, it becomes useless to me”. That is it right there! People are selfish to an epic degree and see the ‘resource’ as fully exploitable notwithstanding impacts on either the ecology or other people downstream.

The fact that some people have been seemingly oblivious to their water bill escalating to over R100 000 per month while others brush their teeth using a thimble of water indicates that a great many people are living with cognitive dissonance. That’s a fancy way of saying they have inconsistencies in their thoughts versus their actions. So they claim to be supportive of the idea of water conservation, while at the same time using it with abandon. And while the knee-jerk response is to frame this as an “Us and Them” construct (or “I would never be like that”), consider the following: When YOU think about the current water scarcity and make plans to work around it, are you considering exploiting other resources (boreholes, even grey-water recycling), or are you actually trying to alter your behaviour to USE LESS water in the first place?

My point it this: We are a water-stressed country and province. In 2003 we had the same problem with a few dry years in a row. Since then rainfall has remained constant (or decreased) whereas population has grown considerably. Why have we not ALL been brushing our teeth with a thimble of water for YEARS?

My sincere hope is that, when the rains mercifully arrive, that you stick to a long-term behavioural change commitment to use FAR less water than you did in 2016. I hope you never see water the same way again.

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