Scotland falls behind on monitoring sewage dumping - Alex Cole-Hamilton
The first was on the eve of my first election to Parliament when I worked so hard to defeat the political editor of BuzzFeed on an indoor go-kart track I made myself carsick.
The second was last week when I visited a waste water treatment plant (or sewage works) just outside Edinburgh and was left feeling much the same.
Don’t get me wrong, it was a fascinating visit and the members of staff who escorted me around were clearly enthusiastic about their work. As a feat of engineering, it was impressive in many ways, especially considering the basic principles of its design date back to the Victorian era. But that’s part of the problem and a key reason for my visit.
Our sewage system was first designed for a simpler time. A time more than a hundred years ago when we used far less water, when toilets were generally out in the garden and people washed infrequently.
Now in addition to there being far more of us, flushing the loo on average six times a day, that system has the impact of the climate emergency to contend with as well.
The Scottish Monsoon, which visits tropical downpours on us with regularity these days as a result of our warming planet, sees our ageing waste water system regularly overwhelmed.
You can see it for yourself if you take a walk down say the Water of Leith where there are “unsatisfactory” sewer overflows – an official and polite description for what is happening.
Last year government-owned Scottish Water had to dump sewage in our rivers and beside our beaches on more 14,000 occasions. The real number could be far higher because only four per cent of sewage outflow points are currently monitored.
This weekend, the Scottish Government’s Environment Secretary Mairi McAllan was left with egg on her face when a freedom of information request by the Daily Express revealed she’d asked civil servants about differences between Scotland and England.
Scottish Government officials confirmed that “water companies in England and Wales are not doing anything different”, that “in Scotland we are experiencing similar pressures on some treatment works” and that “it’s best not to invite comparisons”.
It's clear from that exchange that the Environment Secretary wanted to be able to say that the approach to sewage in England was fundamentally different, but didn’t get the answer she was hoping for.
Actually we are behind them in some respects. English companies monitor more than 90 per cent of their sewage dumping pipes, whereas the plan for Scotland would see monitoring here rise to around 30 per cent.
It’s time Scottish Ministers understood the scale of the challenge we’re facing and built a strategy around that reality.
Scottish Liberal Democrats care passionately about our national environment. Our rivers and beaches are vital to our tourism sector, our fisheries, our wildlife and to our way of life. They are playgrounds for children, animals, anglers and wild swimmers. They deserve to be pristine, not filled with untreated excrement, wet wipes and sanitary products.
This isn’t going away and as we get to grips with the realities of what the climate disaster means for our country, it’s time government got on with the job of recording and reducing sewage dumping.