Boat race fiasco shines spotlight on pollution - Alex Cole-Hamilton

This Easter weekend was punctuated by the annual Oxford – Cambridge university boat race. For me it’s like a starting gun for spring, a quaint old British tradition that heralds the summer of sport to come.
Cambridge celebrate winning he 2024 boat race.Cambridge celebrate winning he 2024 boat race.
Cambridge celebrate winning he 2024 boat race.

Cambridge emerged victorious this year, although it seems not through any athletic prowess necessarily, but rather because several of the Oxford crew spent the night before vomiting due to an E. coli infection, brought about by excessive amounts of what the team described as “poo in the water”.

The number of sewage discharges into our waterways and onto our beaches is increasing. Across the whole of Britain our sewage network – some of it dating back to the Victorian era – is struggling to cope with population increases, the vast amount of water we each use in daily life and the extreme weather events that we are seeing more and more frequently.

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South of the border, where water is privatised, that’s the fault of the water companies, and the wrath of the public is finally being brought to bear on management boards and their shareholders. Here in Scotland, where Scottish Water is wholly owned by the Scottish Government, this is a failure of public policy and ministerial disinterest.

For a start, we only know things are bad in England because they measure almost every single sewage release into every river and estuary in the country. Not so for bonnie Scotland, where until recently only 4 per cent of outlet points are monitored. Even so, in 2023 those monitors covering just a tiny fraction of outflow points recorded a staggering 20,000 discharges of sewage.

All told millions upon millions of cubic metres of sewage are being deliberately pumped into our waterways each year and the public are noticing, with thousands of complaints being recorded every year.

Scottish Water is licensed by SEPA, the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency to discharge sewage when the system becomes overloaded and with the changes in our weather that’s happening again and again, but it also happens on dry days as well. Not only does the practice release harmful bacteria into rivers and beaches where people swim and fish, but things like wet wipes and sanitary towels end up there too.

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There are no two ways about it, this is an emergency and unaddressed, given the annual increase in the problem, it will slowly poison our waterways and coastal areas.

That’s why the Scottish Liberal Democrats want to bring forward a new Clean Water Act. We would introduce legislation that would radically upgrade Scotland’s Victorian sewage network. It would ensure that every sewage dump was monitored and published with binding targets for their reduction. It would introduce a blue flag system for Scotland’s rivers and bring about a complete ban on the release of sewage in protected areas such as bathing waters.

The boat race fiasco is an important spotlight on a national problem – and, these rowers weren’t even swimming in the stuff – the splash and spray of training was enough to make them sick. That will spark a public outcry that should make English water companies take action. But here in Scotland, the fault lies entirely at the feet of SNP/Green Ministers. If they won’t take our sewage emergency seriously, they should get out of the way for someone who will.

Alex Cole-Hamilton MSP is leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats