They were told by the deputy first minister Nicola Sturgeon that she wanted Scotland to be the first “hydro nation” – setting an example of how we use our water resources and exporting our expertise and technology to other countries. “Scotland can grow its water sector to the considerable benefit of our economy,” she said. “ And it can help many countries to manage their water more effectively, protecting and improving their fresh water provisions and so boosting their economic growth.” She announced plans for a “water innovation park” – along the lines of similar parks in India and America – where water companies might concentrate their manufacturing and research.
It is easy to be sceptical of any ambition to be “the first”. I can’t help thinking that Norway or Switzerland have already beaten us to being a hydro nation. Norway produces nearly all its electricity from hydro schemes, Switzerland over 50 per cent, while Scotland is way down the table with just 11 per cent.
>But the hydro nation campaign is not just about energy production. It’s about fresh water supplies, reservoirs, pumping stations, treatment works, pipe-work, drainage and sewerage, water quality, pollution control, flood prevention, leakage reduction, low-energy systems, water management, billing, water science and even water law.
Central to the campaign is Scottish Water, being held up as an example of a state-owned company providing an efficient water service, holding its prices down but still investing in the infrastructure. But there are three other public organisations which will play an important part – the environment protection agency SEPA, the James Hutton Institute (formerly the land and crop research agency) and Dundee University’s Centre for Water Law, Policy and Science.
In addition, there are over 300 companies in the Scottish water industry, ranging from the Weir Group, selling pumps and valves around the world, to the water bottling firms, selling their water in places as far away as India, China, Indonesia and Brazil.
MSPs are being brought into the campaign with a water resources bill currently going through parliament. It will allow Scottish Water to enter partnerships with the private sector and other organisations. It will be permitted to use its land for renewable energy production. ( Scottish Water is one of the country’s biggest consumers of electricity but at present it only generates 5 per cent of its own energy.) The bill will also tighten the rules on water extraction from rivers and allow for the introduction of water shortage orders.
All of this is taking place in a world increasingly short of water – from hose-pipe bans in the south of England, to droughts in Africa. One in eight of the world’s population do not have access to clean water, nearly a third do not have basic sanitation. In comparison, Scotland is indeed blessed. We have plenty of water all the year round. We have 113 reservoirs and 45 usable lochs. We have a system of pipes and sewers, largely laid down by our health-conscious 19th century predecessors – like the great Glencorse scheme in Edinburgh begun in the 1820s and the Loch Katrine scheme for Glasgow in the 1860s.
Much of the recent improvement in our water quality has been driven by European directives – including a big clean-up of our sewage discharges into the sea. But still only 60 per cent of Scottish water meets European standards. Each river basin now has to have a management plan. Areas liable to flooding have to be identified. The changing climate – evidenced by the wettest summer for 100 years in Britain – is making us all aware of the flood risk. In the last decade, there were over 200 serious flood events across Europe – including the great Danube and Elbe floods of 2002 and 2005. Following the floods in England this summer and autumn, the government is planning to spend £2 billion on flood prevention over the next three years. In Scotland, where we’ve had our fair share of flooding in Perthshire and Dumfriesshire, we spend about £20m a year.
In England the water industry was privatised in 1989. The nine regional water authorities had their debts written off by the government and they were sold separately to private companies. In Scotland, the three regional authorities were merged into Scottish Water in 2002. The debt was not written off but the agency receives a subsidy of around £90m a year (though £40m has been clawed back this year ) to help service its debt.
Since 2002, the agency’s performance has been impressive. It claims to have reduced operating costs by 40 per cent – largely by cutting staff back to 3,500. It has kept its average household charge down to £324 a year, £52 less than the average charge in England. And at the same time it is investing nearly £500m a year in new water works, sewage plants and renewing pipe lines. Leakages have been cut by 44 per cent since 2002, though still about a quarter of all water, fresh and foul, is leaking out of the system. This is roughly the same level as in England, though there, leakages have not been falling. And both countries compare unfavourably with cities like Paris and New York where leakages have been cut to below 10 per cent.
Scottish Water is also becoming more “commercial” in supplying water to large industrial-scale consumers (where competition is allowed) and it is even hoping to win contracts in England. Discussions are under way on how Scotland can help with water shortages in England by supplying large scale consumers separately. The agency also has an international division, winning contracts for equipment and expertise in Poland, the Gulf states, India and the USA.
It is this international trade that the “hydro nation” initiative is mostly about. And the experts are looking particularly at the Chinese market. But there is also an element of development aid in the plan. In fact a team from the Forum is going out to Malawi to advise the water authorities there on how to improve water supplies and storage. With climate change, the rainy season is tending to be later and more severe and a lot of the water runs off the dry, hard earth and straight into Lake Malawi, without irrigating the crops or being caught in reservoirs.
The contrast with Malawi underlines yet again how lucky Scotland is with its wealth of natural resources – we’ve had coal and oil, we have the potential for wind, tide and wave power in plenty and now we are beginning to realise we have the most precious resource of all, water.