Even in a wet summer we should care about water

Scotland may lack many resources, but water is not one of them. This summer was the third wettest since records began with rainfall up 50% on previous years.

Water is delivered to our taps by Scottish water, a public service of the type envisaged for the rest of the UK in John McDonnell’s speech to the Labour Party conference this week. Despite the extra costs of managing water and wastewater in Scotland, it does so at below average cost.

However, UK sales of bottled water continues to grow, exceeding cola for the first time this year. The total sales of bottled water are expected to increase to 4.7 billion by 2021. As Stephen Jardine put it in an excellent article in The Scotsman, “It is a remarkable testament to the power of marketing and our own collective stupidity.”

He actually spotted a bottle of Fiji Artesian Spring Water in a shop. Fiji is nearly 10,000 miles away!

Our water generally tastes good and the Drinking Water Quality Regulator tells us it is very safe, excepting a few private supplies. Compliance with the standards set out in our legislation and in the EU Drinking Water Directive in 2016 was 99.91%.

One concern is that plastic microparticles are finding their way into our drinking water. Tiny pieces of plastic can find their way into seawater where they can be eaten by marine animals and so end up in human food. Even more worryingly, new research suggests plastic particles are also commonly found in drinking water. European nations including the UK, Germany and France had the lowest contamination rate in the survey, but this was still 72%. The average number of fibres found in each 500ml sample ranged from 4.8 in the US to 1.9 in Europe.

We don’t know what impact such particles have on the human body, but they could cause inflammation and act as a carrier for other toxins to enter the body. So, while we don’t have clear evidence that plastic microparticles in drinking water have a negative effect on health, we urgently need to find out more.

Cloudy water is a common consumer concern. This doesn’t necessarily mean the water isn’t clean, any more than crystal clear water means it doesn’t contain bugs. Researchers at Drexel University in the USA analysed existing studies from North America and Europe that investigated the link between drinking-water turbidity and acute gastrointestinal illness. Of the 14 studies included in the review, ten found an association between water turbidity (as measured at the water treatment plant) and the incidence of acute gastrointestinal illness. This means we should at least treat it as a proxy for risk.

The Scottish Government has published its fourth annual report on the Hydro Nation. While there are a number of worthwhile initiatives, it remains a long way short of the vision first articulated by Alex Salmond as First Minister. The report identifies a few, generally small scale, projects abroad. There is some academic research and a few technology projects, but nothing on the scale originally envisaged.

Finally, the Water Industry Commission has been setting out its thinking on the next price review. In particular there is a concern that insufficient attention being paid to asset maintenance. It says: “The price setting process has sought to ensure that the regulated company faces a hard budget constraint over the regulatory control period. While this has been very successful in improving operational efficiency, it appears that insufficient attention has been paid (by both regulator and regulated company) to futureproofing levels of service.”

It is doubtful if a base assumption of a 2% increase in prices will do much to address these concerns. Maintaining a high quality water service requires investment. Who knows, we might even rediscover some of that Hydro-Nation vision.

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