Italians’ fears

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Italians’ greatest fear is that the world will run out of drinking water. Out of a number of potential dangers connected to major phenomena, one out of three Italians (31,6%) is worried about the risk of water resource exhaustion more than about other calamities like epidemics, nuclear incidents and overpopulation.

Over the last decades, new terms and images symbolizing great fears of our time, such as Tsunami, SARS, Mad cow disease, Chernobyl, entered public debates with increasing frequency. Despite a clear improvement of the quality and safety of life, thanks also to the contributions of science and technology, the occurrence of accidents, epidemics, ecological disasters beyond our control violently catching us by surprise and leaving us helpless and vulnerable, undermines our certainties every day. In certain ways paradoxically enough, our risk perception, our feeling of being exposed to dangers of increasing entity, has progressively become more intense. Cinema and TV reflect this attitude through the growing number of successful movies about catastrophes, where hurricanes and sudden glaciations caused by climatic changes, nuclear disasters and lab-generated lethal viruses frighten people threatening their lives and the survival of the entire planet.

In the end, what do we fear most? Which phenomenon do we believe to be most dangerous for us? An other Chernobyl? The spread of new diseases? The effects of climatic changes? Overpopulation? Of all these risks, Italians appear more worried about the exhaustion of drinking water supplies: actually nearly one third of the respondents think that running out of water is the biggest danger for our survival (31,6%).

The effects of climatic changes come second: one out of five respondents thinks that natural calamities represent the most significant danger for human survival followed by new virus-epidemics, feared by 19,5% of the sample and nuclear accidents (18,4%). A small but relevant percentage sees the increasing growth of the world population as the main risk (7,8%).

It is worth noting how significantly the respondents’ perception of danger varies according to their socio-cultural background. On one hand drinking water exhaustion tends to worry more the new generations than the elderly (44% of teenagers versus 19,7 of the elderly) and, on the other hand, highly educated people, who also appear to be more sensitive towards the danger related to population growth, are also very concerned about water exhaustion.

At the same time, the risk of nuclear accidents does not receive particular attention from young or the most highly educated people, but it is feared especially by the elderly, who judge it to be much more dangerous than drinking water exhaustion (24% versus 19,7%). These differences may depend on generational factors: nuclear issues have been in the center of public debates on risks of the second half of last century, in part for the association to the second World War, in part for the large debate in Italy that lead to the 1987 referendum. However it is more difficult to understand this increasing concern about the water issue, especially among young people.

It has become a common belief that the public opinion is more sensitive towards highly dramatic risks and specific events (e.g. natural calamities, nuclear accidents) than towards dangers that slowly develop, as in the case for water scarcity. Furthermore Italy has not suffered from problems relating to real and prolonged periods of water scarcity. In fact, according to a recent OECD report (2002), Italy is listed as the first nation in Europe and the third in the World for the amount of water consumption, being 1200 cubic metre per year. It is also to be noted that even in areas with difficulties in management and distribution of water supplies such as the South of Italy and the Islands, respondents are not more sensitive to this issue; the risk perception towards water exhaustion appears to be similar to that of the respondents living in the North of the Country.

Therefore, from a particular point of view, the diffuse perception of the danger of water supply exhaustion may be interpreted as sign of a certain level of maturity of the public opinion in appearing sensitive toward a risk which is not immediate, but that could worsen over the time if appropriate measures are not taken.

Of course it is not inconceivable that an important role may be played by the media: actually this water issue has recently gained special attention in the mass-media thanks to the growing interest shown by different institutions. There have been many initiatives, eclarations and events in favor of water resource protection and of campaigns promoting universal access to water widely covered by media (e.g. year 2003 was proclaimed “International Year of Water”, institution of the “World’s Day of Water”).

A correlation between the media and the public perception of risk can be seen in the light of other cited risk-factors: it is easy to associate natural calamities caused by climatic changes – ranged second among the most dangerous phenomena – with Tsunami, that last Christmas kept us in front of the TV screen for days and that displaced all worries due to SARS-emergency of the preceding year, or at least partially. The reverse applies to nuclear accidents: in the last years there was no record of very serious events that caught media’s attention for a long time and the debate was focused on the possibility of the reintroduction of nuclear industries in Italy stressing the safety guarantees of the power plants.

Therefore a considerable part of Italians, in particular the young, are conscious of the risk of water scarcity, an issue that is already widely covered by the media. All this in future can undoubtedly favor public opinion to support the politics and measures aiming for a more careful and fair exploitation of water resources; nonetheless today it can be seen as an input for politicians and public institutions to strengthen their commitment to promote campaigns on resources utilization and on the spreading of a more responsible individual and collective consumption behavior sustainable over time.