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OPINION: Making sure private water supplies keep flowing safely

by Emma Ash, Senior policy officer (Water team).

This article was first published in the Herald in 21 October 2020.

Having worked in the energy team at Citizens Advice Scotland (CAS) for a while, I recently applied to move to the organisation's water team instead. I fancied a new challenge so decided to take the plunge! 

Why does the Citizens Advice service have teams working on water and energy policy? Well because our network does a lot more than deliver advice. The support offered by advisers in local CABs across the country is of course the most obvious way in which we help people. But in addition to that we also fight for people in the national policy arena, by advocating for the consumer interest - including in essential services like water and energy.   

One example of our work is advocating for access to safe drinking water for all. This might sound too basic an issue for 2020. However, I've discovered that while 96% of people in Scotland do have access to excellent quality and affordable mains water provided by Scottish Water, 196,000 people are, for geographical and historical reasons, served by private supplies; and many more during the tourist season.   

Having a private water supply may make you think of a babbling burn with wholesome water flowing through your rural estate, which you simply tap into. The reality of private water supplies can be less idyllic. Many private supplies exist because the location of the properties they serve made it too difficult or expensive for the authorities at the time to connect them to mains water.

The legacy of these decisions has meant the management of private water supplies lies with the owners of the supply. This management can reasonably be viewed as haphazard at best. It is largely determined by differing attitudes, perceptions and assumptions. Makeshift and remedial treatment may fail to reach the standards required ​by law to protect public health. And a lack of clear understanding of how water quality can vary throughout the year makes it difficult to choose an appropriate treatment system.

Climate change too is having a serious impact on both the quality and availability of some private supplies, often compounded by users not having access to alternative water sources. Increasingly, we are seeing prolonged dry spells, causing private supplies to run out of water. This has resulted in the Scottish Government having to roll out bottled water schemes to provide water to stricken communities. Climate predictions show that this is an issue that will become more regular.

Private supplies are scattered all over Scotland and can serve significant numbers of people; as many as 34% of the population of Argyll and Bute, fo​r example, are on private water supplies. Such supplies can serve tenants, whole communities, businesses and popular tourist areas of Scotland. As a result of Covid-19, more of us may have taken a holiday in Scotland, perhaps staying in accommodation served by a private supply.

I know I can take for granted the ease at which I can be assured of limitless safe water all year round, but this is not something those served by private supplies can do. And while we all may try to be more efficient with our water for environmental reasons, most of us don’t normally have to worry that low rainfall has diminished our supply and impacted the quality of our water. Private water users do.

Efforts are currently being made to address the needs of private water users who are facing the burdens of managing water scarcity and quality. The Scottish government will shortly begin work to bring into legislation a new EU Drinking Water Directive, as part of its commitment to align our devolved legislation with EU law following Brexit. This directive came about after more than 1.8 million Europeans signed a petition calling for a right to water across Europe. It is the first successful European Citizens' Initiative - a process which allows people to call on the European Commission to propose new laws.

Scotland was also one of the first countries to sign up to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These seek “to end all forms of poverty, fight inequalities and tackle climate change, while ensuring that no one is left behind.” Goal six specifically seeks to achieve “universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all”.   

While Scotland has a significant challenge ahead in achieving the UN goal by 2030 for those living with private water supplies, the progress has begun.

The Scottish Government has established working groups to identify the problems and the support required. CAS sits on these groups, and we are committed to supporting outcomes that meet the needs of those affected and ensuring they are at the heart of decisions that will affect their water, their communities, their environment and their places of businesses.