a talk to a Holyrood conference 'Turning the tide: the future of Scotland's water’, Edinburgh, 03 March 2008
First I would like to say something about bottled water. What is the point of it? It's hugely wasteful of resources, ludicrously expensive, and in most cases tastes no different from the water that comes out of the tap. What is the point of paying through the nose for the stuff? Why do people do it? The clue - someone pointed out to me the other day - is in the name of one of the main brands of bottled water - Evian. Look what happens if you spell the word backwards - Evian becomes naive. Maybe that's what the purchasers of bottled water are.
Thank you for inviting me to speak. It is an unusual privilege for a journalist to be asked to comment on current affairs rather than to report other people's comments, which is what I spend most of my time doing. It's daunting and, some might say, something of a cheek for a journalist to be pontificating about the future of Scotland's water, especially as many in the audience will know more than I do. Most of what I do is to write stories about the times that things that go wrong, ignoring the many more frequent times when things go right.
This is an important conference, dealing with a vital subject at a good time. There have been some excellent contributions today. To help draw proceedings to a close, I would like to try and do something a little different. First, I'm going to play some music, and show some pictures. Then I'm going to give a short potted history of the water industry's success in tackling pollution, and then tell the story, as I see it, of the ongoing attempts to reduce the amount of sewage pollution on bathing waters, including advances, setbacks, and concerns for the future. Then I'll talk a little about other problems faced by the water industry, and what we might expect in the future. The usual caveat. The views I express are mine, and not those of my employers.
Smoke on the water?
As I said I want to kick off with a little music for all those of a certain age in the audience. A friend once suggested to me that by far the best way to engage an audience would be to ask everyone to remember the first piece of music they bought. Instead of doing that, I am going to indulge in a little heavy metal - accompanied by pictures of the pollution we are trying to avoid, and some of the beautiful environments we are trying to protect.
For those of you who might be wondering the music was 'Smoke on the Water' (800Kb mp3) by Deep Purple, first released in 1973 and played on air guitar by millions ever since. And I'm sorry if it's riff that you can't get out of your head, and comes back to plague you in the wee small hours. Welcome to the club. Smoke on the water- is that what we're facing? Is the future clear and bright - or are there murky patches ahead?
Cleaner rivers and estuaries
Though, as I mentioned, journalists tend to focus on the dark side, the things that have gone wrong, I would be the first to recognise that there is much that has improved in recent years, with regard to water pollution. Driven by European law and increasingly tougher regulation, pollution overall has declined. According to the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA), the length of rivers in a poor or seriously polluted state has been mostly on a downward trend since 1999.
The same, more or less, can be said of the state of Scotland's estuaries, as you can see. The rules have become stricter, obliging companies to invest more in pollution control technology. As a result our rivers and estuaries are less contaminated than they were, with wildlife suffering less. Of course there is still much to be done, and as you can see from these bar charts, the trend is not always down, with a slight increase in the most recent year, 2005.
Cleaner bathing waters
There is a similar picture from SEPA's data on the state of Scotland's 60 or so designated bathing waters, a topic I want to dwell on for a while, as I think it has some interesting lessons. For the last three decades, since the first European bathing waters directive in 1976, Scotland and the UK have been trying to bring the nations' beaches up to a decent standard by reducing the amount of raw sewage that flows into the sea. A practice that might have been regarded as acceptable in the past, now had to be ended, and many billions of pounds have been invested in upgrading our ageing sewage infrastructure, much of it dating from the Victorian era. This had to be done, partly because if it wasn't, the European Commission would have pursued the legal action it began all the way to the European Court of Justice. In all likelihood, this would have resulted in the British government being fined many millions of pounds. Something also had to be done because the science suggested that paddlers, swimmers and surfers exposed to the kind of sewage pollution that was commonplace would suffer tummy upsets, ear infections or worse. Some of the bacteria present in sewage, like E-coli, can in some circumstances be deadly. I've come across surfers who have become very ill indeed after surfing in contaminated sea water.
So regulatory agencies like SEPA had to turn the screw, the government had to fork out money and Scottish Water improved sewage works across the country. And - to some extent - this has worked. The best measure of pollution is probably the average faecal coliform concentration found in all the samples taken by SEPA over the years. Here is the graph reproduced from SEPA's 2007 bathing waters report.
As you can see, there were significant year-on-year decreases from 2000 to 2003, though since then the trend has been less clear. One thing I can't help observing about this graph. The line that SEPA has drawn to represent the trend seems rather, shall we say, optimistic. Given the data on the graph, I think you could just as easily draw a plough-shaped line, curving sharply up for 2006 and 2007. The concentration of faecal coliforms in Scotland's 61 designated bathing waters last summer was in fact the highest in six years.
Another way of showing what has happened is to chart the number of designated bathing waters that each year fail to meet the basic sewage safety standards. From 1999 to 2007, this is the pattern - a downward trend until 2003, then some bobbing about, a seeming record year in 2006 (on which I shall say more in a minute) and a big rise in 2007.
Bathing waters failing sewage safety limit
year / number of failed bathing waters
1999 / 7
2000 / 9
2001 / 9
2002 / 5
2003 / 3
2004 / 4
2005 / 3
2006 / 0
2007 / 7
A couple of observations about this. I have been writing stories for the Sunday Herald - and before that Scotland on Sunday - about polluted beaches for many years. Every year, I have reported the failings, and SEPA has tried to put a positive spin on it. Every year I would of course contact them for a comment. Early in 2002, after the nine bathing water failures in 2001, SEPA made a bold prediction. The number of bathing waters failing will be halved in 2002, SEPA told me, and the number of failures would be reduced to zero in 2003. In the event, SEPA's promise proved to be somewhat over-optimistic. As you can see, it's wasn't until 2006, that all Scotland's bathing waters appeared to pass the sewage safety limit.
I say 'appeared' because if you look closely at the results for 2006, as I did, all is not how it seems. Bear with me while I explain. In order to be declared a failure under the European bathing water directive 10% of samples taken between June and September have to contain concentrations of sewage pollution above certain limits. So what SEPA normally does is to take 20 samples over the four months, and if concentrations in two of them - 10% - exceed the sewage limits, the bathing water is officially declared a failure for the season. In 2006, however, SEPA did something different, and unprecedented. After one bathing water - at Carnoustie in Angus - recorded two samples in breach of the sewage limits, SEPA decided to double the number of samples it took at the site from 20 to 40. Because no more samples in breach of the limits were found, that meant that Carnoustie could end up being declared a pass. Two breaches out of 20 would have made Carnoustie fail, but two breaches out of 40 fell below the 10% threshold and so could be recorded as a pass. As SEPA said at the time, doing the extra sampling "diluted down" the two breaches and changed the status of Carnoustie. Two other bathing waters would also have failed for 2006 - South Beach in Ayr and Prestwick in South Ayrshire - if SEPA had not opted to apply an "abnormal weather waiver", which exempts badly polluted samples from consideration, and is not recognised by the beach pollution experts, the Marine Conservation Society. All this of course happened a few months before the beginning of the 2007 election campaign. In the circumstances it is not surprising that ministers and officials were accused of "massaging" the data to make Scotland's bathing waters look cleaner than they really were - a charge that they nevertheless denied.
Then, as we've seen, in 2007 pollution shot up again. This was blamed by SEPA predominately on the fact that it was a very wet summer. Much of the sewage that finds its way into bathing waters these days comes from animal wastes washed off the land into burns, and discharged into the sea. Heavy rain makes this problem worse, and it also increases the chances of sewers flooding and dumping sewage into the sea. But with global warming expected to bring increased rainfall to Scotland, this is a problem that is going to get worse rather than better. "If you look at long term predictions for climate change," as the Marine Conservation Society pointed out at the time, "it's a situation that we may have to get used to." In other words we are bound to get more wet summers, and that means bathing waters continuing to breach the 1976 sewage standards. Climate change, as others have pointed out, will cause a raft of problems with which the water industry will have to deal. As well as more rain, we're likely to get stronger winds, more storms, and more floods - all of which could have major implication for the way in which the water industry does its business.
Moving goal posts
Behind the official figures on bathing water pollution there is a hidden, and I think worrying, trend with important implications for the future. Of course with pollution monitoring, it's not only the results that are important, but the extent of the monitoring. If less monitoring is being done, less pollution might be found. So here's an analysis of the extent of SEPA bathing water monitoring over recent years.
Fewer samples at bathing waters
year / total number of samples taken by SEPA
2002 / 2280
2003 / 2260
2004 / 2050
2005 / 2030
2006 / 1489
What you can see is that the total number of samples taken from all Scotland's bathing waters is dropping sharply, by 35% between 2002 and 2006, with nearly 800 fewer samples being tested now than five years ago. I don't know about you, but I find that worrying. The less pollution you look for, the less you are going to find, and major pollution incidents could be missed. If this trend continues, confidence in the monitoring regime will be eroded.
As well as taking and testing fewer samples, SEPA is also sampling fewer bathing waters. It has to sample the 60 or so designated bathing waters, but it has discretion over monitoring other non-designated, but often very popular, bathing waters. Here is what has happened to the number of bathing waters monitored.
Fewer bathing waters monitored
year/ total number of bathing waters monitored by SEPA
2002 / 114
2003 / 113
2004 / 107
2005 / 106
2006 / 101
They have declined from 114 in 2002 to 101 in 2006. Amongst the 13 beaches that were dropped was one at Helensburgh in Argyll, which was dropped in 2005 after badly breaching sewage safety limits for the previous five years, making it easily one of the dirtiest bathing waters in Scotland. But now, it is simply not recorded, and as a result, the overall picture looks better than it otherwise would. Doubtless one of the reasons for the cuts in sampling and bathing waters, is SEPA's need to conserve its limited financial resources. But the net outcome is clear: pollution may go undetected and unremarked and so may not be cleaned up.
There's another problem looming as well. More than three decades after first drawing up the basic sewage safety limits, the European Union is getting round to introducing a new set of rules for keeping bathing waters clean. And not past time either, since it's long been recognised that sewage pollution below the limits could still cause nasty infections amongst water users. The new rules, as you would expect, are tougher, and mean that more bathing waters are likely to fail over the next few years, as they are introduced. Some might complain that this is unfairly moving the goal posts, but others would argue that it recognises the most recent science, and does what we should be doing - constantly striving to improve our environment. As we've seen, there were seven Scottish bathing waters in 2007 that breached the 1976 standards. According to an analysis by SEPA for the Sunday Herald, if the new European rules had applied, another nine bathing waters would have recorded a fail, bringing the total for 2007 to 16. So I don't think that there's much doubt that, come the new European standards, Scotland's sewage pollution record is going to look much poorer. In that respect the future looks worse, not better.
Leaks and floods
There have been other stories about other problems affecting the water industry, that have caught my eye, and suggest future problems. The amount of water wasted by leaks in old pipelines, for example. According to one recent account, a billion litres of treated water are pouring out of cracks into the ground every day. Despite efforts by Scottish Water to stem the leaks, it hasn't been able to meet the targets set by the industry watchdog, the Water Industry Commissioner for Scotland. As well as wasting water and energy, theoretically, the leaks costs over £190,000 a day. And it has provoked strong criticisms of Scottish Water from MSPs from across the political divide. This is clearly a problem that Scottish Water is going to have to deal with.
Then there's the high profile cases where things go wrong. One that I particularly remember because the news of it broke on a Saturday, making it essential for Sunday papers to cover, was the leak from Seafield sewage works near Leith in Edinburgh in April 2007. A mechanical breakdown with the pumps led to 120 million litres of screened but untreated sewage pouring into the Firth of Forth. That's a lot of sewage. It caused a local stink, and could have resulted in harmful pollution, though luckily it seems to have been quickly diluted by the Firth of Forth. It took engineers 64 hours to stem the flow, and a health warning was issued by the City of Edinburgh Council, and signs were put up on the foreshore at Portobello and elsewhere.
Last month, the company that runs the plant - Veolia Water Outsourcing, at the time known as Thames Water Services - pled guilty to offences under water and environment legislation and was fined £13,500. That doesn't look too good.
The Seafield spillage wasn't the fault of Scottish Water, though clearly it had to deal with some of the flak. Problems elsewhere, however, have been blamed on Scottish Water. One of the worst sagas has been in Campbeltown, on the Mull of Kintyre. A series of problems with efforts to replace the town's old sewage system has ended up with Scottish Water and Scottish ministers all in the dock. Three years ago foul water contaminated with sewage was flooding the streets of Campbeltown almost every time it rained heavily.
As you can see, that created quite a mess, and was clearly unacceptable. Happily it doesn't seem to happen any more. But now, unfortunately, a new £15 million waste water plant has simply transferred the problem. Every time it rains heavily, sewage spills into the marina and harbour in Campbeltown Loch. According to data released to local residents by Scottish Water, this happens up to a thousand times a year. Residents, as you might imagine, are not happy. They say the cost - environmentally and economically - is "horrifying", and they accuse Scottish Water, SEPA and the government of persistently failing to solve the problem. Some of the side effects are bizarre. To try and ease the pressure on the Campbeltown plant, many millions of litres of sewage have been tankered 130 miles by road from Campbeltown to Glasgow. Again, data released by Scottish Water to local residents suggests that over 20 tanker trips have been made every week, with as many as 15 in a single day. Not surprisingly, given all that's happened, Scottish ministers are facing legal action from the European Commission as the result of a campaign by residents. And Scottish Water has been recently reported to the Procurator Fiscal by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency.
Unfortunately, Campbeltown is far from the only legal case in which Scottish Water has been embroiled. In fact an analysis of all the cases listed by SEPA reveals that Scottish Water is prosecuted for environmental crimes far more than any other company or government agency. Since November 2004, Scottish Water has been found guilty and fined - or in one case admonished - for sewage pollution offences on no fewer than 16 occasions. You can see the details here. This has led to environmentalists labelling Scottish Water as "Scotland's most frequently prosecuted environmental criminal". Scottish Water defends itself by pointing out that it inherited a huge legacy of problems, which it has been trying to deal with. The number of prosecutions it is facing are going down, it says. That said, I don't think many would doubt that this is a problem that Scottish Water will have to address in the future. Gone are the days when water courses could be polluted, fish killed and blind eyes be turned.
I have touched on a lot of issues, but of course they are many I have not mentioned. The impacts of climate change alone would takes days to fully explore. I was particularly struck by the presentation earlier today by Scottish Water which said that its electricity consumption was projected to increase by 10% between 2006 and 2010 because of increased treatment. As Scottish Water said, that clearly needs addressing. I was also interested by the point made by Duncan McLaren from Friends of the Earth Scotland about the need to ration the supply of water instead of giving everyone what they demand. I appreciate that the world is a little more complicated than perhaps I've made it sound. The water industry in general, and Scottish Water in particular, obviously finds itself pushed in several different directions at once. If it doesn't deliver value for customers and keep the price of water down, it gets clobbered. If it delivers drinking water that is below par, it gets clobbered. And, as we've seen, if it makes mistakes which cause pollution, it gets clobbered. In a way, though, that is all a sign that tough regulation is working - and long may it continue. There's been much discussion this afternoon on whether to keep Scottish Water in the public sector, or not. Personally, I tend to favour keeping it publicly owned, because it's such an essential service, and I've been less than impressed with the results of selling off railways and other essential networks. But whatever the future, the industry will continue to have a crucial influence on the environment, and it will need to be regulated. And the pressures - to cut pollution, to reduce waste to combat climate change - will grow.