Clueless But Contented: Canadians and Water

By Lynn Patterson

Lynn Patterson has more than twenty years experience in corporate communications and belongs to the International Association for Business Communicators. She is a popular speaker, panellist and moderator at national and international sustainability and communications conferences, and is an IABC “All Star” Speaker.

May 13, 2013 | Smart Cities | 0 comments

I’m lucky enough to hold the budget (and the pen) on the only national poll of Canadians about their attitudes towards water, so I take advantage of this annual opportunity to ask some oddball questions of my own that have taken root in the back of my head.

So in the 2013 RBC Canadian Water Attitudes Study, I asked questions like this one: who reorganizes the dishwasher in your house because they think that others don’t load it properly?  Oh, you know someone does it, and in the interests of full disclosure—I’m the re-loader in my house. Here are two pictures (not staged, I promise) that show my dishwasher. One shows how my partner loads it, and the other shows how it’s done properly.

[image_frame style="framed_shadow" align="center" alt="Dishwasher filled incorrectly" title="Dishwasher filled incorrectly" width="284"]http://meetingoftheminds.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/Dish-washer-filled-incorrectly1.jpg[/image_frame]

[image_frame style="framed_shadow" align="center" alt="Dishwasher filled correctly" title="Dishwasher filled correctly" width="284"]http://meetingoftheminds.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/Dish-washer-filled-correctly.jpg[/image_frame]

I wanted to ask this question in our poll because I hoped the results would discover an entire, hidden class of tidy, rule-following Canadians (like me) whose chronic reloading practices were helping save water, energy and money.  And lo and behold, 37% of us reload the dishwasher…that’s almost 4 out of 10 households with reloaders!

But get this: only 13% of Canadians have an inkling that someone in their house is re-doing their work. That, I totally get. I wait until my partner Terry is out of the kitchen before my re-loading begins, which I have to confess, I undertake with an attitude that’s half exasperation and half self-righteousness.

Shameful secrets

We cover a range of water issues in the poll and ask about shameful water behaviours like: Who takes the longest showers? What water-wasting behaviours are the most irritating? Who is most embarrassed to order tap water in restaurants? How many people take an extra-long shower just to relax?  (The answers: young people 18-34; when people water down their driveway in the summer; young Torontonians and 21% of all Canadians).

Love that driveway!

Some of the questions in our poll might look oddball on the surface, but our more serious ones actually expose some deeper-rooted misconceptions about water in Canada.

For example, one of the biggest sources of water pollution in urbanized areas is when storm water runs off hard, impermeable surfaces like roads, parking lots, buildings and driveways.

Turns out that almost half of Canadians prefer a paved (impermeable) driveway, rather than grass or permeable paving stones. This makes sense in Canada, I suppose, given it’s probably easier to shovel snow from an evenly-paved surface than from cobble stones. (I live in a condo, so what do I know?).  But even after hearing that permeable surfaces reduce the negative implications of storm water runoff, 53% of the paved driveway-lovers said they wouldn’t part with their pavement. That number increases significantly among men over 55: go figure.

Municipal Infrastructure

We hope our annual poll provides useful information to those who are responsible for maintaining our municipal water systems (and incidentally, 84% of Canadians think their municipality is doing a good job of providing good quality water).

Here’s a finding that surprised us. A whopping 78% of Canadians think that their local water infrastructure is in good condition, needing only minor investment for upkeep. That may not be a surprising statistic, but it’s a real head-scratcher when you consider that four out of ten (42%) confess that they’re actually not very aware of the condition of the water and sewage infrastructure serving their home. So what exactly are they basing their opinions on, one has to wonder? And given this, how hard will it be for municipalities to defend and pay for the estimated $80 billion  required to replace drinking water, wastewater and storm water infrastructure that’s been identified by municipalities themselves as “less than good.”

For more on this, visit Canada as the Water Solutions Country: Defining the Opportunities

In many municipalities, water distribution and sewage pipes can be up to 80 years old and have already reached the end of their service life. Yet investments in water infrastructure maintenance are chronically underfunded and often deferred, even in the best of economic times, falling victim to the ‘no new taxes’ environment that is so much a part of today’s political landscape.

Cost of water

Our study also showed that Canadians (at least those on municipal water systems) don’t really have a sense of the true value of water.  This is no surprise.  Of the 81 per cent of Canadians that rely on municipal water services, only 40% are charged for the amount of water they use. Of the rest:

  • 10% don’t know how they are charged for water
  • 18% pay a fixed amount regardless of how much they use and
  • 33% say their costs are built into their rent or condo fees.

When it comes to awareness about water issues, our annual RBC Canadian Water Attitudes Study, which we do with Canadian pollster, GlobeScan, shows that it’s often a case of ‘out of sight, out of mind’.  In fact, I was describing our poll findings to a friend at RBC who’s a financial planner. She says she sees the very same trend in her line of work, with people who don’t think about saving for retirement until it’s almost too late, and then the panic sets in! I hate to think of what it might take for Canadians to realize we can’t afford to take water for granted.

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