Water runs deep

The victory of the Scottish National Party in the May elections has deep implications for water north of the border, as Claire Smith discovered when she met policy adviser Alex Bell

In May this year the Scottish National Party swept to an historic victory – winning a majority in the Scottish Parliament and sweeping aside their traditional opponents. The victory of the SNP was due to many factors – but among them was the party’s stance on green energy and renewables as a keystone of the new Scottish economy.

Back in November last year the SNP leader Alex Salmond said that he wanted Scotland to become a ‘hydro economy’ – with the state-owned Scottish Water playing a crucial role in the greening of Scotland. A bill due to go before the Scottish Parliament will give Scottish Water the power to use its 70,000 acres of land for renewable energy projects, which the SNP calculates could generate £300M extra revenue a year.

And the SNP is currently lobbying for the World Water Forum (WWF) to be held in Glasgow in 2015. It comes as no surprise to learn that Alex Bell, former BBC journalist and a key adviser to the First Minister, has what he describes as a “life-long passion” for water.

Bell, who is head of research and strategy for the Scottish Government, wrote Peak Water – a book about how we built civilisation on water and how civilisation could drain it dry. He first became passionate about the issue on assignment for the BBC in Africa – where he realised how fundamental an issue water was.

“If you take a global view it is clear that water is emerging as the crucial commodity. We want to ensure that our water resources are all that they can be. For anyone to have a supply of water is at the very core of what it means to be human and it means to be dignified. As such it seems very much at the core of a certain kind of politics.”

He believes that water is going to become increasingly valuable in global economic terms.

“It is not that the world is going to run out of water, it is that modern civilisation is very thirsty, we have thirsty industries. This area of water theory and water politics is a new field and we are starting from the point of view of having a lot of it. Most governments start from the point of view of not

having enough of it.

“So Scotland is in the same fortunate position as Canada, Sweden and Russia – countries that are blessed with water.”

The victory of the SNP means that mutualisation, proposed by the CBI and backed by the Water Industry Commission for Scotland, is now off the cards for Scottish Water. And despite the introduction of competition for business customers in 2005, Scottish Water still dominates the industry north of the border – its retailing arm, subsidiary Business Stream, has 96% of the market.

Hydro economy
“What this means is that as a government we have a chance to think about what is the best thing to do with this resource in a way which brings maximum benefit.”

So what exactly is a hydro economy? “The hydro economy means how do we take the commodity which we have taken for granted for a long time and turn it into something that is an economic driver – without jeopardising our environment.”

The Scottish Government wants to source 100% equivalent of the country’s electricity from renewables by 2020 – by which time it estimates that the industry will employ 130,000 people.

“My main concern is what does Scotland look like in 2025. To do that we have to use the resources we have to the maximum benefit at the same time as meeting our carbon obligations. We already have a very good hydro system, but we are unlikely to build any new big hydro plants.

“We are now getting into wind power. Scottish Water owns about 70 thousand acres and it is about how that land is used. But there is also benefit to things such as tourism. A lot of tourism is dependent on water and access to water.”

Asked about the cost of investment, Bell stresses that water consumers in Scotland are already getting a good deal. “Our water bills have been falling year on year and they are set to fall even further.”

Alex Bell hopes that hosting the World Water Forum will make water issues a talking point in Scotland. “That is a lot of what the WWF will be about – trying to get the nation involved in thinking about its great good fortune.”

He also hopes it will make Scotland more attractive to overseas investors.

“If a company is manufacturing something with a thirsty process it might be a sound business decision to place that business in Scotland.”

However, he believes that water – integral as it is to the Scottish landscape – has always been valued by the people of Scotland. He cites the Strathclyde Referendum of 1994 – in which the regional council asked if people wanted water supplies to be privatised – as had happened in England in 1989. Seven-tenths of the electorate voted and 97% wanted to keep water in public hands. It is just one of the reasons why Alex Bell is confident that he can keep people behind the SNP plans.

“There is no doubt an element of accident about it, but for some reason or another water seems to be very important to the Scottish people.”

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