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Scotland's drought crisis is no laughing matter for some

by Emma Ash, Senior policy officer (Water).

This article was first published in the Herald on 13 October 2021.

An article in the Herald last week (“It may be pouring, but Scotland has a water scarcity problem”) highlighted an issue of growing, if ironic, concern. Yes, rain-soaked Scotland really is short of water.

The issue of course is not about a lack of water per se, but a lack of water that is safe to drink. That article had people from both SEPA and Scottish Water saying that maintaining some public water supplies was a “significant challenge” after the second driest summer in 160 years.

It is certainly counter-intuitive, as I look out of the window while writing this and see rivulets of water gushing down the gutters once again, to be hearing calls to conserve water. But the experts are right. Climate change is having many adverse impacts on our reality in Scotland today, and this is one of them.

At Citizens Advice Scotland, we advocate for the consumer interest in a number of public services, one of them being water. And there is one group of people who can be particularly vulnerable to these trends, and that is those who rely on private water supplies. 

These can be single households or whole communities, and their supply systems can vary from a simple pipe directing water from a nearby stream to their homes using basic filters, to more robust treatment structures. But the point is they are not part of the public water system and so lack the protections enjoyed by the rest of us.

In July, a private water community in South Ayrshire ran out of water. Without any warning, peoples’ water just stopped coming out of their taps. The local MSP, Elena Whitham, called the issue a ‘humanitarian crisis’. You might think that language is a bit over the top? If you do, try living without your water source for 24 hours.

Of course, I’m not actually suggesting you do that. Depriving yourself and your family of clean water to drink, wash and cook with is dangerous. But hopefully the thought is enough to make the point.

In that Ayrshire case the government stepped in to provide bottled water until the supply was restored but for those affected in the meantime, this was a very serious issue. 

And lack of supply is not the only problem. There’s also the issue of water quality. Many private water supplies are not required to test their water for safety. As a result, the quality of the water may be sub-standard, containing things such as E.Coli. Treatment processes, vary and we’ve even heard anecdotal evidence of people straining their water with hospital stockings. Hopefully you’ll agree that there’s a problem here that requires some attention.

Let’s start by busting a couple of common myths about private water supplies. Myth number 1: the numbers of people who use a private supply are tiny. Well, in fact more than 182,000 people in Scotland rely on one. Imagine if they all lived in the same place. That’s a city not much smaller than Aberdeen. If Aberdeen’s water supply was sporadic and unsafe, I think we’d all agree we need to fix that.

Myth number two: private water supplies only exist for remote dwellers, eccentric tree-hugging types who’ve chosen to live that way so knew the risks. In fact, the vast majority of those who rely on a private supply did not choose to do so. It’s just the place they were born or had to move to for employment.

The fact that private supplies are disproportionately concentrated in rural areas means there is a risk of growing inequality in terms of access to safe drinking water across Scotland. The ability of the rural community and economy to thrive is fundamentally based on its ability to access safe drinking water, and this is being threatened by climate change impacts such as lower rainfall during the summer months – as we saw this year, and in three of the last four years.

Think about this too. Problems with private supplies don’t just affect the people who live there. If you’ve spent a holiday or a day-trip to Argyll or the Highlands there’s a good chance you’ve stayed in a hotel or eaten in a restaurant that is served by a private supply. Looked at that way, the figure of 182,000 people affected is a low estimate.

So, in partnership with the Drinking Water Quality Regulator, CAS recently commissioned research to support the development of more resilient and empowered private supply communities.

The evidence suggests that lack of information and training, the complexity of water treatment and maintenance, and issues of affordability all combine to mean water quantity and quality are never guaranteed for private water supply users. This could present a very real threat to public health for a large group of people.

Scotland has made an international commitment to ensure access to safe drinking water for all its citizens, in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, as well as a national commitment to keep pace with EU law, which recognises water as a human right and requires action to improve access. CAS is working collaboratively with key stakeholders to identify ways of meeting these.

With COP26 just weeks away, Scotland needs to showcase our commitment to sustainability. A lot of attention is focusing, quite rightly, on energy efficiency. But we mustn’t overlook the issues around water as well. Private water consumers must have the support they need to secure their capacity and build resilience to climate change impacts.

To put it in simpler terms: It’s 2021, and 182,000 of our fellow citizens are often living without a clean, safe reliable water supply. But with support, improving access to water for all is possible.