Scotland’s place in achieving water for society – including all

This is a guest blog by Ben McIntosh-Michaelis, a RWSN Young Professional who submitted this entry as part of the RWSN@WWW competition. For more information on RWSN’s support to Young Professionals, please see here.

Living in Scotland we often think that everyone here has access to safe water. In reality, this is not quite the case. Despite not being perfect, we are still good at managing our water. Because of this, Scotland is heavily involved in Water, Sanitation And Hygiene (WASH) projects worldwide.

In Scotland’s cities and towns, naturally occurring water sources cannot meet demand. In order to maintain a supply of water for society, which is of sufficient quantity and of good quality, common civil infrastructure is key. By and large, Scotland has a well-developed infrastructure for supplying and removing water. Therefore, water for society is a reality, at least in the urban areas.

Many water supplies in Scotland are managed by a national body, Scottish Water. This goes a long way in ensuring that everyone is included when water is supplied for society. However, rural water supplies in Scotland are not managed by the national body, meaning that ca. 500,000 people on private water supplies (using boreholes or stream water for instance) are not covered by the same infrastructure and quality controls. As the research from the Citizen’s Advice Bureau Scotland suggests, this situation means that safe water for all isn’t a reality even here in Scotland.

Huge variations in geology and landscape in Scotland means that the water quality varies from location to location. The result is that these small and individual sources require a bespoke set of technical steps to clean the water. But as you can appreciate, this is extremely costly and often not a realistic approach.

Development of a standard system which can be used to treat water from sources with significant variations in flowrate requirements and water quality is challenging. Many of the standard, tried and tested technologies used to treat these sources require a lot of electricity, high levels of maintenance, and replacement of parts. This is expensive to manage, and it also places people living in rural areas at risk of being supplied with untreated water if a piece of equipment stops functioning. This section of society may become excluded from the quality water supply for society.

Better mechanisms for implementing new systems and technologies in areas where traditional systems can be unreliable and expensive are needed in Scotland. This is in terms of policies held by those responsible for infrastructure obtainment and providing independent analysis about which products will be suitable. As stated by the Citizen’s Advice Bureau Scotland, “more needs to be done to improve the quality of information available to consumers, and signposting needs to be improved to ensure those that need it can access it.”

From a global perspective, water for society – including all, means that the impacts of climate change and economic practices should be considered when discussing Scotland’s place in society. Steps are being taken by the Scottish Government to include these considerations, many of which relate directly to water (information can be found on the Scottish Government’s website).

As well as Scottish Government involvement, Scottish society engages in international development; from school groups, to charities, universities, student groups and businesses, there are a wide range of projects and affiliations. Many of these projects relate to or involve water. During my own engagement as a student and as a professional engineer working in Southern Africa, I have observed that many of these activities are unregulated and are based on random connections between people in Scotland and around the world. On the one hand, this is great because there are so many ways in which people in Scotland can get involved. On the other hand, many of the projects are untargeted, and do not focus on the needs of the people they are supposed to be helping. The lack of coordination means that there is a lot of replication of projects, sometimes a lack of qualified experts on board, and a lack of a best practice principle.

For Scottish society to engage healthily in international development, including the WASH field, greater coordination and regulation of projects is required. Young people in particular need to be made more aware of the issues surrounding voluntourism in order to curb the harm caused by this practice.

The importance of being properly qualified to do a job must be highlighted, to everyone. My work in the rural water sectors in Scotland and in Southern Africa suggests to me that a cultural shift is required. Just because a water infrastructure project is in a rural area – whether in Scotland or Southern Africa – doesn’t mean it can be hastily implemented or without the necessary technical input. Water for all of society must include those living in even the most remote areas, and the infrastructure, expertise and business models need to be adapted to help meet the needs of these communities to ensure no one is left behind.

More resources

If you are interested in finding out more about rural water supplies in Scotland, and the comparison with other countries (specifically Eastern Europe / Ethiopia), please see this RWSN webinar from 2018, or check out this presentation.

About the author

Ben won the Vision in Business for the Environment of Scotland (VIBES) Hydro Nation Challenge in 2016 for the design of the Afridev Hi-Lift (a handpump retrofit adaptation unit that allows water to be lifted to a head). Later, upon completion of his engineering Masters, he started work for the Climate Justice Fund Water Futures Program (CJF WFP) based at the University of Strathclyde, gaining experience working in Malawi’s Southern region alongside BASEflow, a local Malawian organisation. He currently works for Clean Water Wave, an Edinburgh based Community Interest Company which is developing the low energy, no chemical Clean Aqua For Everyone (CAFE) water treatment system.