Geographical Multilevel Examination Of Risk Perceptions Of The European Union’s Residents

By 2030, it is expected that 8 out of 10 Europeans will be living in cities, which are traditionally more exposed to threats to their water environments. Pollution is responsible for 1.4 million premature deaths in Europe every year, according to the World Health Organization. Inadequate drinking water is the cause of 14 deaths a day, while children and people in the outskirts of society such as migrants are the most vulnerable to pollution in cities.

The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals list water sanitation as a priority (Goal 6), while the EU has set a detailed classification system of all surface and groundwater by 2015 (Water Framework Directive, 2000/60/EC) in order to define the status of waters, threats, and economic measures for each water body to improve or maintain its water quality status.

Current European Union directives have included public participation during their implementation stages, which are open to stakeholders and members of the public. An example is the current second stage of implementation of the Water Framework Directive where public consultation is to be carried out before River Basin Management Plans are adopted. This needs to be carried out for every management area (called River Basin District), in each member state of the European Union. Lack of public approval does not allow policies to be implemented. This makes the perceptions of Europeans on what threats the water environment of their regions an important element in the policy making process.

Given the European Union’s emphasis in both improving water quality and including the public before adopting new measures, in our recent article The perception of water related risks and the state of the water environment in the European Union, published in Water Research, we examine which factors affect risk perceptions regarding water quality amongst Europeans.

Threats to the water environment 

The European Union monitors the status of their waters and the level of threats from various stressors — and the data are available in the Water Information System Europe (WISE). WISE classifies water bodies into five categories (from Bad to High) based on the abundance of aquatic flora and fauna, the availability of nutrients, aspects of salinity, temperature, pollution by chemical pollutants, and alterations to morphological features such as water quantity, as well as flow, depth, and structure of the river beds.

Using the GIS methodology, we combined the River Basin District and Subdistrict layers with administrative location areas (known as NUTS for Europe) in order to have overlapping information on water quality and population density. Areas that have poor water quality but less inhabitants were weighted less in our analysis. After the water quality of all European countries was presented at NUTS levels, we overlapped the individual perception data on threats to the water environment gathered by a European poll survey called Flash Eurobarometer 344 (“Attitudes of Europeans towards water-related issues”). Specifically, that survey captured perceived threats to the water environment, socio-demographic, environmentalism, information, and knowledge and practice characteristics in the country of residence of the respondents.

Collating the questions asked in the Eurobarometer survey and the geospatial data available in WISE, we focused on three threats to the water environment that are available in both data sources: chemical pollution, algae growth, and changes to water ecosystems. That led to 25,521 usable observations (European residents) for which the status of the water environment of the region they reside was measured.

Answering the question of risk perceptions in a geospatially “nested way”

To test how perceptions and water status are impacted in the individual and country levels, we employed a model that respondents “nest” into regions and regions “nest” into countries with their perceptions for the three aforementioned threats. For each lower level (say, respondents “nested” in regions), we allow for responses on perceived threats to vary while the status of the water environment in that region is considered identical. This leads us into a three-level random intercept logistic regression model.

Interesting findings of the analysis include the fact that as the proportion of a country’s water bodies classified as having “good chemical status” increases, the odds of a respondent perceiving chemical pollution as a threat decreases, with women being more likely to perceive it as a threat than men. The story becomes more interesting when “changes to water ecosystems” as a threat is considered. The bigger the water area in a region described as having “high or good status” by WISE, the more likely is that a respondent will consider changes to water ecosystems as a threat. Men are again less likely to perceive it as a threat than women when all other characteristics stay the same. Also, older people are more likely to consider “algae growth” as an issue and less likely to consider “chemical pollution” and “changes to water ecosystems” as threats.

Does the status of water in my region affect risk perceptions for the threats to water in my country?

Our hypothesis that the state of the national and regional environment affects perceptions of risks to the water environment was confirmed: the better the state of the environment, the lower the perceived risk. Perceived risk due to “chemical pollution” and due to “ecosystem changes” was affected by the actual state of the national environment. The state of the regional environment, i.e. the environment that the respondent interacts with, is associated with the perception of risk due to “algae growth,” with worse environmental indicators reflected by higher perceived risk. Respondents appear to consider “high or good” water environment as a commodity that, once reached, would be detrimental to see water quality deteriorate. This might lead respondents to select their residency based on water status and thus, implicitly, have paid for higher land market prices or rents to secure it.

The everyday pro-environmental behavior of respondents (such as saving water and refraining from using water-harmful pesticides) increases the odds of perceiving any threat as relevant for one’s country. More educated people and women are, on average, more concerned about all three threats, while older generations appear to be more concerned by “algae growth.” People living in rural areas are more likely to consider “chemical pollution” and “changes to water ecosystems” as threats.

Therefore, in our analysis, people appear to respond relatively well to threats in their region, and that is reflected in perceived threats. Personal characteristics and areas of residence are the main drivers of perceived risk for water, which is an encouraging sight for public consultation activities in Europe. Based on our results, campaigns in Europe to communicate threats to the water environment and actions to be taken can have higher chances of responsiveness, and decision-making involving the public appears to not be endangered by lack of knowledge of pressing issues. Accommodating the diversity of European citizens and not issuing “top-down” decisions has been the European Union’s policy, and the findings of our study support this practice.

These findings are described in the article entitled The perception of water related risks and the state of the water environment in the European Union, recently published in the journal Water ResearchThis work was conducted by Dimitris Skuras from the University of Patras, Greece and Emmanouil Tyllianakis from the University of Patras, Greece and the Centre of Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science.