Liquid Assets; It's Our Most Precious Resource, Direct from the Heavens. Yet after 2,000 Years of Water Management, Why Can We No Longer Trust What Comes out of the Tap?

Article excerpt


WATER is remarkable stuff. Life cannot exist anywhere without it - it makes up about 85 per cent of our body-mass and, denied water, you will die within a few days. In chemical terms this vital fluid is stable and does not fume, explode, burn, radiate or degrade.

There is a wonderful circularity about water, falling from the sky, evaporating and returning as rain, although this is scarcely a modern insight. 'All the rivers run into the sea,' cries Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament, 'yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thence they return again.' And in one other vital respect the stuff turns a key law of physics on its head. Water is the only substance that is heavier as a liquid than as a solid. If ice did not float, the polar caps would sink, mount and spread, and ours would be a dead and frozen planet.

We wash in it, sail on it, play with it, swim and cavort with it. Above all, we drink it and, if it is not properly treated, we can catch unpleasant and perhaps even fatal illnesses from it.

Water purification is hardly rocket science - the technology is relatively straightforward and we ought to be able to turn on a tap with confidence, knowing what flows out will do us no harm.

But in the past week we have had cause to doubt this assumption not once, but twice. Last Saturday there was a serious scare about the supply from Mugdock Reservoir, which serves Glasgow's West End, Knightswood, Drumchapel, Bearsden, Milngavie and surrounding areas.

Scottish Water had known of the problem for three days before warning the 140,000 people who depend on Mugdock Reservoir, to boil their drinking water because it was infected with the cryptosporidium parasite.

The beastie causes severe vomiting, diarrhoea and fever. An outbreak two years ago affected 90 people and one old lady died. So there was a predictable outcry from politicians and panic- buying of Highland Spring.

NO sooner has the Glasgow scare died down than a new water fiasco blows up in Edinburgh.

Scottish Water, no doubt rather jumpy after heavy criticism of its handling of the Mugdock problem, admitted faulty filtration had allowed cryptosporidium into the capital's public supply.

But immediately after the new water conglomerate came clean about the parasite's presence it was backpedalling wildly, saying cyptosporidium levels were low and there was no need to boil water - unless it made people feel safer.

Not surprisingly, most of Central Scotland is now utterly confused and wondering what to believe about its most vital life-support system. How, in the 21st century, can such a hash be made of a basic service dating back to Roman times?

The ancient Romans all but nationalised their water supply, building wonderful reservoirs and aqueducts which belonged to the State. The Emperor put honest, industrious officials in charge of supplies.

The service wasn't free and only rich Romans could tap into it, but the water-rate they paid brought Caesar serious income and his minions went to great lengths to protect against fraud.

Every aqueduct had so many supply-pipes and no more could be added without applying to Caesar's civil service for a licence. In return - an anticipation, perhaps, of the magic card to unscramble satellite TV transmissions - the State issued a special stopcock, or calix.

It was usually made of brass.

Its diameter controlled volume of supply and, naturally, the fatter it was the more you paid.

Tampering with one, perhaps hammering a post through the calix to stretch it a bit, was a serious offence.

For 50ft after the calix, the pipe into your home had to be of no bigger dimension.

Whenever you sold your house, the deal expired. It was not unknown for an innocent Roman to buy a villa and to find somone else had outbid him for the water supply. …