Water in Scotland Isn’t Awesome

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Today is World Water Day and I’m currently sitting in on a live online all day-er with Scotland’s premier league of water experts. And I have to say, so far so disappointing.

I mean no disrespect to the organisers, because I know how hard they work to make a huge event like this happen. But we’ve been served a serious amount of back-patting, a significant chunk of ‘make individuals accountable for their actions’, and a ginormous slice of Scotland-is-heading-up-COP26-arent-we-brilliant pie.

With the exception of hearing about some beach cleans and some fish passes in Dufftown, there has been little talk of actual action. Where is the clean water revolution? Where is the step-change that we need to truly value our most valuable of resources?

There has been no news at all about actual innovations, game changers, and legislative changes that would herald Scotland truly taking a giant leap into world water leadership.

Why do we need a change in attitude about Scottish water? Because water in Scotland isn’t as awesome as everyone thinks!

  1. The quantity of our water is under threat and the way we currently manage droughts isn’t sustainable: There is a huge, dangerous assumption in Scotland that we’re OK because it rains a lot. Yet Scotland is getting drier, and we are predicted to experience increasingly warmer and drier summers. The population is increasing, particularly across the east of the country and in the Central Belt, and yet these areas are some of the driest. The way we currently manage droughts isn’t sustainable – we can’t continue tanker trucking in water or pallets of single use plastic bottles to areas when they’re experiencing drought, like we did during the summer of 2018.
  2. Untreated and poorly treated sewage going into our rivers and seas is a major problem: Most wastewater treatment plants in Scotland aren’t equipped to remove pharma, yet our population is growing and pharma use is increasing… but our wastewater treatment plants (especially smaller, more rural ones) aren’t being upgraded. The impact on our environment and the risk of these pollutants ending back in the food chain is significant. We need to reduce the amount of pharmaceuticals and other emerging pollutants in our wastewater; so we can improve the state of our seas, protect our food chain, and improve conditions for aquatic beings – including swimmers – Surfers Against Sewage’s research estimates that regular surfers in UK waters have 4x the amount of resistance to antibiotics than a non-ocean swimmer, indicating that our seas are really brilliant receptacles of our medicines and superb breeding grounds for antimicrobial resistance. Medicines we take are excreted through our urine and poo, and medicines from hospitals and veterinary applications also end up in our water supplies. Additionally, creams and personal care products may contain toxic chemicals, and sometimes people dispose of medicines down the loo (a HUGE no no!!!). We could be world leaders right here! What an opportunity!
  3. Rural private supplies aren’t up to scratch: Rural Scots with poor quality water risk being left behind, and that is not good enough. Once-yearly checks on drinking water quality for PWS aren’t good enough. Leaving communities to make their own minds up about complex water quality issues and a multitude of infrastructure options isn’t good enough. We know this, and the Scottish Government and the Citizens Advice Scotland have carried out research over the past 3 years to confirm what many of us already knew. So do something about it! We can’t talk confidently of addressing Sustainable Development Goal 6 internationally if we can’t address SDG6 domestically too.

Scotland prides itself on its water. And this is clear from the talks today. We’ve heard this morning from the Scotch Whisky Association about how important water is to the industry. We’ve heard from the head of Visit Scotland about how much our beaches mean to tourism and how important beach cleans are. And from one of the leading Scottish Government advisers about the importance of our blue-green infrastructure. And indeed about how individuals in Scotland don’t value water because they don’t recognise its value.

We simply cannot continue to botch out the same ideas and rhetoric about how important water is and how awesome Scotland is if we are not truly putting it at the heart of our actions.

World Water Day needs to be revolutionary. Not a re-hashing of the same ideas from World Water Day 2015 but on slightly updated PPT slides.

So I will celebrate World Water Day 2021 by being angry, and by funnelling that anger into innovation and change.

I shall see you here next year and I hope to be less angry about it then.

Update! Some further links in case you’re interested in finding out more:

  • You can find more information about pharmaceutical pollution in Scottish environments here, here, and here
  • Research about antimicrobial resistance and how improvements in wastewater treatment can help here. A 2003 study showcased the ecotoxicological impact of pharma found in treated wastewater, indicating that this research has been around for almost 20 years, yet we’re still not seeing widespread changes in either public campaigns about pharma or how wastewater is treated
  • A paper about antibiotic resistance in UK surfers can be found here
  • Rural private water supplies are an acknowledged issue by the Scottish Government and mentioned in the 2020 HydroNation report. You will see a comment on page 17 about how a pair of surgical stockings was being used as ‘water treatment’ for a drinking water supply. It can’t just be me that thinks that stocking is shocking!
  • Drought, concerns about population growth, and climate change are acknowledged issues by our public services – presentations from World Water Day 2019 detailing this here
  • Public/private divide and why individuals in their own homes don’t value water as much as they could is a long-researched and very well understood area (see Mary Douglas’ work in the 1960s and all the research that this has generated subsequently). I can bore anyone senseless about this research if you want further links, but I’ll desist for now. Suffice to say large scale public engagements and campaigns about the value of water and why, for example, why throwing old medication down the loo isn’t a good idea are vital.