When a local environmental campaign is successful, do more people sign up?
That is the question Dr. Robert Case, a researcher at Renison University College at the University of Waterloo, is hoping to find the answer to.
In 2013, community activist groups including the Wellington Water Watchers challenged an appeal by Nestlé Waters Canada, to the Ontario Environmental Review Tribunal, to have certain conditions removed from a water-taking permit issued for water-bottling operations in the county. Unwilling to fight against the community pressure, Nestlé eventually withdrew its appeal.
In Hope, B.C., where Nestlé Waters Canada also has water bottling operations, social movement organizations including the WaterWealth Project organized themselves to take aim at Nestlé’s operations there, drawing attention to the lack of regulation governing water use in that province. This advocacy work eventually contributed to the passing of the province’s new Water Sustainability Act in early 2014.
In both cases, these policy wins were celebrated in the community and across Canada as a significant victory for water activists. However, important questions remain concerning the continuing impact of these ‘wins’ on public attitudes about and grassroots involvement in the social movement organizations involved. Specifically, does an organization’s success encourage more people to become involved, or make them feel that their participation is no longer needed?
The Water Wins project aims to explore these questions. The project team has collected data through interviews with key informants, a survey of residents in the two communities, and a retrospective analysis of local and national news media, which we will delve into in a series of short reports.
This is the second in a series of three community reports that will aim to answer key questions, toward eventually answering the project's overarching question:
Report One: What are people concerned about when it comes to water?
Report Two: What do people know about the work of local activist groups?
Report Three: What does engagement in water activism look like at the community level?
If you are interested in reading the other reports in the series, you can find them
Thank you for your interest in our research. We hope you find this report to be interesting, informative and useful.
The Water Wins Team
Prior to beginning this survey, had you heard of the Wellington Water Watchers/ WaterWealth Project?
In the communities of Wellington County in Ontario, and the Fraser Valley in British Columbia, we reached out to community members to complete a survey on water issues. The data collection for these surveys took place approximately 1.5-2 years after the water activist organizations of focus experienced their significant "wins" at the centre of this study: an opportune time to check in and see how these wins have impacted people's knowledge of these organizations over the longer term. Participants were asked questions about the organization local to them (i.e. Wellington Water Watchers in Wellington, and WaterWealth Project in the Fraser Valley). The Wellington Water Watchers, founded in 2007, is a non-profit organization that is committed to protection and celebration of local water and to educating the public on threats to the watershed. Founded in 2013, the WaterWealth Project is a non-profit focused on empowering community residents to regain control over decisions that affect their home waters, including rivers, lakes and aquifers.
Participants completed one of two versions of the survey: an online version of the survey, advertised via the social media of local environmental organizations and in local newspapers; or a shortened version of the survey, completed when project volunteers came to their homes as part of door-to-door canvassing. It was expected that those who completed the online version of the survey might already have a somewhat greater interest in water issues than the general population, since they were independently choosing to complete the survey.
Yes, I am an active member, volunteer or collaborator
Yes, I occasionally volunteer or donate or participate in their activities
Yes, I know them but have never been directly involved
Yes, I've heard of them, but I do not know much about them
No, I have never heard of them
As expected, people who responded to the online survey were more likely to report that they had at least heard of the Wellington Water Watchers or the WaterWealth Project. In the case of the WaterWealth Project, they were more well-known among those who completed the door-to-door survey than was true for the Wellington Water Watchers (28.2% compared to 6.6%, respectively); however, among online survey participants, the Wellington Water Watchers were more well-known locally (80.3% in Wellington compared to 62.9% in Fraser Valley had at least heard of their local organization).
When comparing the online survey responses in both Wellington and Fraser Valley, the most common response was that they had heard of their local organization but have never been directly involved in any way. In Wellington, this was true of 34.5% of participants, which is very similar to the 32.1% of participants with this answer in the Fraser Valley.
It appears, overall, that the respondents of the online survey in Wellington were much more likely to have gotten involved in their local organization when compared to online respondents in Fraser Valley. In Wellington, 36.3% of online respondents said they were either "active" or "occasional" participants in the Wellington Water Watchers, in comparison to the 19.7% of those who indicated they were active in the WaterWealth Project in Fraser Valley.
In addition to surveys, we also interviewed a number of "key informants" (or "KI"s) from each of the study communities. These KIs were either members or alumnae of the two water organizations at the centre of the study, or others who were involved in activism on water or environmental issues in these communities.
A common theme from the interviews across the two communities was that although the public seems to have heard about Wellington Water Watchers and the WaterWealth Project, they do not have a strong or clear sense about what exactly these organizations are aiming to achieve.
"So once again we are just within that bubble and I have this perception that we are really well known but I really don't know that for sure... I think that people might have some familiarity with it in general. They might not know what it is we do or anything like that..."
-Key Informant from Wellington County
Key informants also spoke about the idea that public recognition of these organizations increased when they were discussed in the news and media, and died down when these issues were no longer a main focus of public discussion and concern.
"I think people still by and large in Chilliwack don't know about the WaterWealth project, even though they've got a great sign and a great somewhat central location in town."
-Key Informant from the Fraser Valley
What campaigns of these two organizations are best known in their local communities?
These are the most popular answers that were given by respondents. Respondents were allowed to offer multiple responses and not all responses are shown; hence, the percentages do not add up to 100%.
Regarding the campaigns that were most recognized, the timing of the survey relative to events in the community may itself be a significant factor. For example, the high levels of awareness of the Aevitas plant fight in the Fraser Valley correspond with this having been a major news story at the time that the survey was being done.
As expected among door-to-door respondents, given the low awareness of the organizations to begin with among this group, they were much more likely to report that they were unsure or unclear about campaigns of the local water activist organizations in their communities.
Furthermore, the relatively low number of participants who answered this question in the Fraser Valley should be taken into account when considering these results.
Many KIs in Wellington correctly predicted that the Wellington Water Watchers' campaign against Nestlé would be the most likely to be associated with their organization. Among the online respondents, who we assumed would have a more in-depth knowledge of local water issues, this was overwhelmingly the case. Over half of online respondents were familiar with the Wellington Water Watchers' adversarial relationship with Nestlé, either citing specific cases (e.g. work in the local towns of Hillsburgh, Aberfoyle and Elora) or conflict with Nestlé in general. This, however, contrasts starkly with door-to-door respondents, as none of them cited issues with Nestlé.
Another campaign that KIs expected to be well-known was the "Message in the Bottle" campaign, an assumption that is supported by the survey data. Message in the Bottle was a public outreach education campaign that involved visits to public schools throughout the county in order to promote the consumption of tap water rather than bottled water. Although the door-to-door survey respondents were relatively unaware of any of the Wellington Water Watchers' campaigns or initiatives, a few were aware of this campaign. In fact, it was one of the only campaigns that was cited by door-to-door participants.
Interestingly, KIs did not expect respondents to be aware of Wellington Water Watchers' work related to the Dolime quarry or other quarry-related campaigns; yet it was the second most commonly-cited campaign among online survey respondents. Many online respondents also cited more general educational messaging or awareness-raising activities of the Wellington Water Watchers, a finding that should be encouraging to water activists.
In the Fraser Valley, KIs believed the general public tends to associate the WaterWealth Project with more advocacy-oriented campaigns and initiatives, including work around the province's Water Sustainability Act, highlighting Nestlé's water-taking activities, addressing the chlorination of local tap water, and advocacy against pipeline building, as opposed to more community-oriented campaigns.
While a majority of survey respondents did mention more advocacy-oriented work, with the most common being the campaign against the Aevitas toxic waste recycling facility, followed closely by Nestlé-related work and their involvement in the Water Sustainability Act, a number still did mention community oriented activities. For example, nearly a fifth of online survey and a handful of door-to-door survey respondents indicated they knew of the WaterWealth Project through their stream-keeping initiatives. No respondents mentioned the chlorination of local tap water and very few mentioned the pipeline work of the WaterWealth Project (a response that was not included on the chart due to the low number of respondents who mentioned it).
Key Informants from both the Wellington Water Watchers and the WaterWealth Project seemed well-attuned to the reality that their work might not be well-known among the general public.
"People were like, oh WaterWealth, yeah, I've heard of you guys. But then as soon as those issues died down, as soon as we're not chirping around in the headlines, people are like, who? So it's hard to... I don't feel confident saying that I even had a good read about it."
-Key Informant from the Fraser Valley
"I think in the community at large, if you were to talk to... I would say that 90% of people would not be aware that there was a legal case and that the Water Watchers participated in that, or that they had been advocating for the quarry down the road, or that they participated in the many quarry events that happened North of here." -Key Informant from Wellington County
How much do locals know about the campaign "wins" of these activist organizations?
Wellington: In 2013, the Wellington Water Watchers did work to ensure restrictions during periods of drought were included in Nestlé Water’s permit to take water from a well in Hillsburgh. How familiar are you with this story?
Fraser Valley: In 2013, community groups staged a campaign to highlight the issue of Nestlé Water's drawing groundwater for free in Hope to bottle and sell. This eventually contributed to the enactment of the Water Sustainability Act. How familiar are you with this story?
Overall, it appears that public awareness of these two campaign wins was slightly higher in the case of the WaterWealth Project in Fraser Valley. A more detailed analysis of the demographics of respondents might yield greater insight into whether the respondents are representative of these regional populations at large; but for the time being, these numbers are useful as an overview.
As expected, people who responded to the online survey were more likely to report that they had followed their local water activism stories and campaigns closely, or that they were at least aware of the story. In Wellington, nearly half of respondents (45%) of the online survey responded that they followed the story closely and know quite a lot about it, and just 10% said they had not heard about it at all. In the Fraser Valley, this proportion was even higher, with close to two thirds (61%) of respondents claiming to have followed the story closely and only 9% saying they knew nothing about it.
By contrast, among door-to-door survey respondents, only 8% of Wellington respondents claimed to have followed the story closely, while nearly half (49%) said this was the first time they were hearing about it. In the Fraser Valley, the number of people with a high familiarity of the story was notably higher, with 26% of door-to-door respondents saying they followed the story closely; on the other hand, 21% also claimed they hadn't heard of the story at all.
In the door-to-door round of survey data collection, which took place following the online round of data collection, an additional option was added to the choices- "I was affected or involved in the story"- to further break down the level of interest of those who had followed the story closely. However, only 1% of Wellington respondents said they had been directly affected or involved, and none of the Fraser Valley respondents cited any kind of direct involvement in the story.
According to the KIs in both communities, neither win is particularly well-known among the public. In the case of both organizations, the most directly-visible impact of the win itself was an increase in news media coverage surrounding the win and awareness-raising among the general public of issues to which they might not otherwise pay attention.
How Does Knowledge of These Campaign "Wins" Influence People's Interest in Becoming Involved?
It inspires me to get more involved
It reassures me that someone is dealing with water issues in the community for me
It discourages me from getting involved
It doesn't influence my interest or involvement in water issues in any way
It makes me curious to learn more about the issues
This was the question at the heart of the study. Taking a look at how people answered this question when asked directly of course doesn't tell the whole story; but it does offer an interesting glimpse into how these "wins" may influence people's level of engagement with their local water activist organizations.
In the door-to-door round of survey data collection, an additional option was added to the choices: "It makes me curious to learn more about the issues".
Respondents were allowed to offer multiple responses; hence, the percentages do not add up to 100%.
A majority of respondents in both communities indicated that the news of the win reassured them that someone else was taking care of important water issues. Generally across the two communities, this proportion was markedly higher than was the proportion of respondents who reported being inspired by the wins to get personally involved. The exception to this was among Fraser Valley online survey respondents, nearly half of whom (46.2%) indicated the win inspired them to become more involved in the work of their local water activist organization. Online respondents in Wellington were also fairly likely to choose this response (36.6%), as were door-to-door respondents in Fraser Valley (26.2%), a group which was also equally likely to say that news of the win made them want to learn more about the issues (26.2%). Relatively few indicated that news of the win made them feel like they would not want to become involved, though a number, particularly in the Fraser Valley, indicated that the win had no impact on their level of interest.
Such results should be encouraging overall to local water activist organizations, as it appears that specific campaign wins raise their credibility among those who learn of them, without necessarily discouraging them from becoming involved. However, the wins in and of themselves do not appear to be enough to encourage the general public to become more involved, and this is something that water and other environmental activist organizations may need to address if this is their goal.
In a slightly different approach to answering this same question, we asked KIs whether or how they observed community engagement in their local water activist organization to have changed in the period following the campaign wins at the centre of the study. In both study regions, KIs who are affiliated with the organizations observed that engagement generally happens in patterns of "spikes and lulls", often related to specific events, and that patterns surrounding their campaign wins compared with other events were not actually discernible. This appears to align with the survey respondent data to some extent, with the exception of Fraser Valley online respondents.
In the case of the WaterWealth Project, it was found that engagement had actually dropped off sharply since the win. For the Wellington Water Watchers, it was felt by at least one member that engagement hadn't significantly increased or decreased over time, with levels having risen sharply during the successful campaign, and then largely returning after the win to where they had been before. One important distinction between the two groups is that the WaterWealth Project formed around its most heavily-resourced campaign and its first major win, whereas Wellington Water Watchers was already an existing group when their largest campaign win took place. So the observed changes in engagement must not only consider the successful campaigns, but other contextual differences experienced by water activist organizations in their respective communities.
"I think that the win wasn't presented in a way that empowered people to want to be involved. I think that it gratified the organization, it gratified the fight, and it raised the prestige of the Water Watchers; but I don't think that it was constructed or engineered in such a way when people found out about it that it encouraged them to find out more and participate. So I think that -- yeah, I think that the feeling that someone is taking care of it, unfortunately, may have been more of a result than encouraging people to want to participate." -Key Informant from Wellington County
In both cases, the win was seen by KIs to increase credibility of the organizations among water advocates, policymakers and inner activist circles. When compared against survey responses, it would appear that this increase in credibility is also applicable among the general public. But, as one KI from Wellington County explained, more could have been done to ensure their organization's win did more than elevate their reputation, to also encourage more wide-spread engagement.
Building on the findings from Report 1 where we explored water issues of interest in the two study communities, this report illuminates that knowledge of and level of engagement with water activist organizations varies widely.
Overall, people's knowledge of activist work around water issues appears to be relatively low, perhaps particularly if they have not been involved in any of the campaigns. An examination of the relationship between people's level of involvement in an organization and their knowledge of broader water issues would be a potentially interesting area of inquiry for further study. Community-focused activities may be one way to encourage broader engagement, and this is an approach that both the Wellington Water Watchers and the WaterWealth Project have been pursuing.
Water and other environmental activist organizations should consider that, while many in our survey have said that knowledge of a campaign win inspires them to become more involved, a majority of people still feel reassured that someone else is taking care of the important issues for them. Thus, a crucial consideration for such organizations when they experience a campaign win is not only how to make these wins well-known, but to leverage them as an opportunity for broader community engagement and involvement in the cause, by demonstrating how people can become or continue to be involved. It is important that community members be involved in their local water activist organizations as these organizations are typically volunteer-run and the outcomes of their various initiatives, such as those mentioned in this report, have a direct impact on everyone in a community.