Recent scaremongering headlines in newspapers claim - misleadingly - that Scotland has an issue with “raw sewage being dumped in rivers”. There is only one problem - it is not ‘raw sewage’ and it is not being ‘dumped’ - it is almost entirely rainwater that is deliberately led back into the rivers to avoid flooding.
Less than 1% is contaminated with toilet water - what most people think of when they hear the phrase ‘raw sewage’.
The Daily Record claimed to reveal the “full horror’ of “sewage dumped thousands of times’ in Scotland’s rivers; the Liberal Democrats took to social media to claim that ‘raw sewage’ is being dumped in various politicians' constituencies; and the Herald published a ‘Ferret investigation’ claiming Scotland was “way behind England” on solving sewage problems.
Those who swim and paddle in Scotland’s beautiful rivers, lochs and beaches are scratching their heads at these ‘news’ reports - and rightly so. On Twitter, Dr Bob Rankin spoke for many when he wrote: “I can tell you from experience that the rivers and beaches in Scotland are not covered in sewage.”
Only a tiny fraction of the outflow drainage has been contaminated with toilet water - what we usually mean when we say ‘raw sewage’. That is very different from the situation in England, where 100 beaches were closed due to sewage spills last summer.
Scottish Water commented: “Our drainage network helps with rain water during heavy rainfall storms, to minimise the risk of flooding to properties. We do this in a variety of ways, such as installing large storm tanks or more commonly releasing pressure on the network from rain using overflows to rivers and the sea. When there are overflows from a rainstorm, less than 1% of this is sewage from toilets.”
Simon Parsons, Director of Strategic Customer and Service Planning, said: “Scotland’s rivers are in good health - 87% of water bodies achieve ‘good’ or better water quality and are amongst the best in Europe.” Only 14% of England’s water bodies are rated good or excellent. There, a House of Commons committee reported that a ‘Chemical cocktail’ of sewage, slurry and plastic polluting English rivers puts public health and nature at risk
Yet the Scottish Liberal Democrats and their friends in the media are attempting to tar Scotland with the same brush as England. They are trying to mislead people into believing there is a significant problem with sewage being dumped into our waters when there isn’t. The Daily Record now claims that 3 in 4 of the paper’s readers say they are less likely to wild swim because of their coverage.
In heavy rain, the system is designed to drain water away into rivers
When there is heavy rain or storms, the water system is designed to lead water from roof gutters and roadways back into rivers and the sea. The water has to go somewhere or else there would be flooding. It might look muddy but it is not full of sewage.
Scottish Water’s surface water policy is to separate flood drainage from household waste but in some urban areas with old infrastructure, or when the water levels are exceptionally high, there is some mixing of the two - although this represents just a tiny percentage of all of the water that flows into our rivers.
Scotland’s Environment Protection Agency has identified just 108 combined sewage outflow drains across Scotland with a high priority need for action - that is out of 3,600 across the country so 3 percent. These are causing concern because of items like plastic-based wet wipes, which take up to 100 years to break down, getting into the system. But of these 108, just 28 are rated as being causing concern due to water quality. So only 0.78% of Scotland’s combined sewage outlet drains have issues with water quality.
Scottish Water has created a routemap for improving urban waterways, where these 108 drains are, and has set aside £500 million for investment in improvement. It is also adding 1,000 more monitoring stations to CSOs this year.
Climate change presents challenges as the number of extreme weather events increases. There is almost £1billion currently being invested in flood protection schemes across Scotland.
Scottish Water and English water companies are very different
Scotland and England are very different in terms of water management and water quality. Scottish Water remains a publicly owned company answerable to the Scottish Government, It does not take money from bills and pay it to shareholders. Annual reports clearly show that all of the money coming in gets reinvested in the water system. Since being privatised in 1989, English water firms have paid dividends of more than £65 billion to shareholders.
Scottish waters are among the cleanest in Europe
Scottish Water has invested £2.7 billion in improving and maintaining the country’s public drainage system and infrastructure over the past decade. This has helped ensure that Scotland’s waters are rated among the best in Europe.
Scottish water quality is more than four times higher than England’s
SEPA undertakes a comprehensive monitoring programme to assess the condition of Scotland’s water environment. This overall classification brings together an assessment of four separate themes: water quality, water quantity, fish migration and physical condition. This testing measure shows more than 66% of Scotland’s water is highly rated. Scottish Water calculates that in fact 87% of water bodies in Scotland achieve good or better marks on water quality alone, and they aim to raise that. This is higher than the average across Europe and significantly higher than England’s 14%.
A record 89 beaches regularly monitored for bathing quality
In 2023, SEPA is monitoring and testing the bathing water at a record number of beaches around the country - 89. The highest number of these rated excellent for water quality – and a total of 98% of locations achieving a classification of sufficient or better.
More than £3 million has been spent on works to improve water quality at Fisherrow in Musselburgh. SEPA says that following this work, Fisherrow Sands can meet bathing water quality.
There are real problems ahead due to extreme weather events and flooding
An increase in severe weather events such as rainstorms is already evident. This creates problems for water management and flood prevention. Seeing water gushing from overflow pipes after heavy rain is a sign that the system is working as intended, but there are challenges ahead.
SEPA publishes a detailed flood management plan on its website. Scottish Water investments include the 5km Shieldhall Tunnel which increases the capacity of the water system in Glasgow. There are another 28 flood prevention schemes underway across Scotland at a cost of almost £1 billion.
Scottish Water is better placed to face the challenges of climate change
Scotland’s Unionist politicians and their supporters in the media are working hard to create a misleading notion that Scotland is suffering from the same kinds of issues with water quality as England.
But that is not the case. Solidarity across Scottish society helped to keep water under public ownership in Scotland. As a result, money is not taken out for shareholders but is reinvested in future-proofing the water supply. Scotland’s waterways and beaches are amongst the cleanest in Europe.
Climate change presents challenges for water management, of course. But Scotland’s water company is better placed to confront this than the fragmented, privatised water management network in England.