Chris Shaffner is the senior vice president of the Water and Community Facilities division at CoBank.
Before we saw the effects of the coronavirus in hospitals, we saw them in supermarkets. Early on during the pandemic, grocery sales in Auckland, New Zealand, increased by more than 40% over the same date last year. In Singapore, rice and instant noodles flew off the shelves so fast that the prime minister had to reassure residents that there were enough supplies for everyone. For many Americans, this was the first time they’d ever seen such empty shelves — at least outside of a severe weather event. However, this is just the latest expression of an all-too-familiar phenomenon.
When faced with fear and uncertainty, people begin panic-buying. They start stocking up on supplies under the rationale that they need to prepare for the worst possible outcomes. Logical as that might seem, experts note that panic-buying is actually a sort of psychological coping mechanism. We go shopping in times of stress because we’re looking for a feeling of control that we can no longer find in everyday life. It happened across the U.S. during the Cuban missile crisis and the run-up to Y2K, and it happens to many individuals or families whenever the future feels uncertain. No wonder it happened again as the world was faced with the worst pandemic in a century.
However, while panic-buying might be unnecessary — especially in response to a pandemic that left essential stores open and supply chains largely intact — that doesn’t mean it’s irrational. If you went to a store during the height of this phenomenon, you probably noticed a lack of flour, dried beans, and canned goods on the shelves while stocks of sweet treats remained full. For the most part, people panic-buy things they consider essential to survival, perhaps explaining why they bought so much water.
Understanding ‘Hydro Hoarding’
Before a strong storm, it makes sense to stock up on bottled water in case flooding compromises the water supply. But at no point in the coronavirus pandemic has anyone suggested the water supply is in danger of either running out or of becoming contaminated. People have a lot of worries right now, and water isn’t one of them.
And yet, bottled water is flying off the shelves. Some stores have limited the amount people can buy, but that hasn’t deterred customers from continuing to hoard water supplies. The word “hoard” is no exaggeration, as it’s unlikely people are actually drinking the water they’re storing. The coronavirus hasn’t been detected in water supplies, probably because standard water treatment measures are enough to kill the virus. Tap water remains as safe as ever, making all that bottled water redundant at best.
One might be tempted to explain this phenomenon as simple selfishness — people looking out for their own needs before others. In fact, countless letters to the editor and internet comments have floated this same theory as people castigate their neighbors for panic-buying. Attractive as it might seem to blame others, though, the instinct to stockpile water reveals a deeper anxiety at play.
How Past Water Crises Play a Role
Even if the coronavirus doesn’t threaten water supplies, plenty of other forces do: Corroded pipes, insufficient infrastructure spending, and climate change are just a few factors that can wreak havoc on water safety. Likewise, the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, still looms large in the minds of many, and this is appropriate considering the city and state didn’t ensure clean, safe drinking water even years after discovering problems. Having seen what happens when water taps turn toxic and just how common that can be, people are understandably worried about the stability of the water supply.
The differences we see between hydro hoarders and their neighbors is a microcosm for the water situation across the country (and in the West in general). For multiple reasons unrelated to the coronavirus, people worry that water will run out because the supply is mismanaged or because others exceeded what might be perceived as their fair share.
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The pandemic sparked these fears in some for the first time, but they’re all too familiar in minority communities. Historically, water problems affect minority populations more often and with graver consequences. As a result, these groups consume bottled water at much higher rates and often at great personal expense. Tragically, some people know firsthand the psychological, medical, and economic toll a lack of access to clean drinking water can take. For everyone else, that thought is starting to set in — and it’s stoking the instincts that propel panic-buying.
So how can we quell unnecessary hydro hoarding during this pandemic and beyond? We can start by examining the water industry’s role.
Rebuilding Public Trust
The future of shared water supplies depends on having the wholehearted trust of the residents who drink from them. Although residents in many communities do trust their systems — particularly in small towns where system operators are neighbors and there’s a unique sense of communal trust — water systems lack buy-in across the board.
Without that trust, people will continue to spend unnecessary money on bottled water, avoid drinking enough water, or rush to stockpile gallons of it at the first sign of crisis. And with the lack of enthusiastic public buy-in, the water infrastructure will struggle to receive the attention and funding necessary to serve the needs of everyone.
All in all, countless communities’ water suppliers still have no safety net in place for households that struggle to pay their water bills each month. Whether or not clean water flows into a home shouldn’t depend on how much that household can pay. Before people have confidence in affording clean water, they need to see it as fundamentally fair. Likewise, most people don’t know where their local water comes from or what the treatment process entails, making it easier to assume the worst about the product coming out of the tap. Understandably, that uneasiness leads to them relying on store shelves for their water supply rather than the perfectly safe tap water flowing into their homes.
Public education campaigns are incredibly valuable for quelling this problem, as they can clear up the many misconceptions driving people to avoid tap water. If residents understand the work that goes into securing, treating, and cleaning the water entering their homes, they’ll be more likely to trust and depend on that water system itself.
Sending ambassadors into communities could be part of the solution, as building rapport relies on good old-fashioned face-to-face communication. Philadelphia is a great example of this: The city has excellent tap water, but its water supply suffers from the same trust issues as other urban centers. To help spread the message that Philadelphia’s water is safe to drink, the water department sent brand ambassadors into specific areas to educate and build relationships with the community. Ambassadors gave the water department a more human face — one that speaks to people directly rather than through a screen or press release.
The coronavirus pandemic forces us to take a hard look at many aspects of society, which has led to some uncomfortable discoveries. A lack of trust in water supplies is on that list. When people are paying a premium price to a private enterprise for the right to stockpile a public resource, it’s a clear sign of breaks within the system. We shouldn’t forget this important lesson: People might not be acting irrationally for stockpiling bottled water — perhaps they’re scared of a water system that does little to inspire confidence. We are all hoping to return to the status quo of life prior to the coronavirus, but when it comes to water, it’s time for something better.
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.