Meeting of the Parliament
Meeting date: Thursday, September 21, 2023
- General Question Time
- First Minister’s Question Time
- World Rivers Day 2023
- Portfolio Question Time
- Online Child Abuse, Grooming and Exploitation
- Urgent Question
- Decision Time
World Rivers Day 2023
We move to the next item of business, and I ask those who are leaving the public gallery to please do so quickly and quietly—thank you.
The next item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S6M-10364, in the name of Jackie Dunbar, on world rivers day 2023. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.
That the Parliament marks World Rivers Day 2023, which takes place on 24 September and is a celebration of the world’s waterways; commends the organisations, communities and land managers implementing landscape scale initiatives that improve stewardship of rivers; appreciates what it sees as the value of catchment scale initiatives and networks in connecting projects and communities together to maximise the benefits; considers that nature-based solutions, when successfully implemented, can lead to healthy, dynamic, resilient river systems, delivering multiple benefits to interconnected species such as sea trout, Atlantic salmon and freshwater pearl mussels, among others; recognises what it considers the seriousness with which the Scottish Government is treating Scotland’s declining salmon stocks; further recognises the Wild Salmon Strategy and its objectives and priority themes; understands the interconnectivity within the ecosystem, where pressures such as water temperature, extreme flow events, nutrient enrichment and pollution can be substantial and cumulative; acknowledges Scottish Water’s improving urban waters route map, which is backed by £500 million of investment; understands that SEPA’s recent results show that 66% of Scotland’s water bodies are in good condition or better, compared with just 16% elsewhere in the UK, and considers that implementing nature-based solutions can mitigate such pressures, delivering multiple benefits by boosting biodiversity, reducing diffuse pollution and reducing river temperatures in the Aberdeen Donside constituency in Scotland, and in the rest of the UK.12:48
I am pleased to have secured this members’ business debate to celebrate world rivers day 2023. I thank all the members who supported my motion and all the organisations that have got in touch and provided helpful briefings in advance of the debate. I also declare my interest as the nature champion for sea trout.
World rivers day is a celebration of the world’s waterways that is held on the fourth Sunday of September each year, which means that this year’s celebration will take place this coming Sunday, 24 September. World rivers day is especially relevant to us because Scotland is renowned worldwide for the environmental quality of our rivers, lochs, seas and waterways, which attract visitors and support our key industries. Scotland’s landscape is shaped by its rivers, which provide fresh water to sustain us, support our farms, drive industry and power our homes.
Scotland as a whole has more than 125,000km of waterways that range from small burns to wide, deep rivers. Every major city has grown up around them and they have benefited our populations hugely, not only economically as the gateway to trade and transport goods in the past but for the health and wellbeing of our citizens. Edinburgh has the Forth, Glasgow has the Clyde, Dundee has the Tay and Aberdeen has the benefit of two rivers, the Dee and the Don.
The River Don runs through my constituency of Aberdeen Donside, hence the reason I was delighted to become the champion of the sea trout, as it leaves the North Sea to travel up the River Don to spawn each year. One of my favourite walks is a dander along the riverbank, where wildlife roam freely right on my doorstep. Last time, I was lucky enough to see a heron standing on a large stone in the river. I just hoped that it was not on the prowl for one of my sea trout on its way upstream.
Folk have lived and worked along the River Don for centuries. We can still see the relics of Aberdeen’s industrial past and some of the better-known mills on the lower reaches of the Don. The river has been used as a power source to drive processes and machines for hundreds of years, which really developed in the 1700s when there were several mills along the river. Many became large concerns and household names such as the inventor of the Crombie coat, John Crombie at Grandholm Mills. The textile mills have all closed, but you will still find machinery and buildings along the river, which stands testament to that fine part of the city’s history.
Let us have a wee look at the history of world rivers day. The United Nations launched the water for life decade in 2005 to create greater awareness of the need to better care for water resources. That led to Mark Angelo, an internationally renowned river advocate, establishing world rivers day. The proposal for a worldwide event to celebrate rivers followed the success of British Columbia rivers day, which Mark founded and led in western Canada in 1980. The annual event has grown a fair bit since then. It has continued to grow annually and was celebrated last year by several million folk in up to 100 countries.
Our rivers and waterways face challenges, whether that be the effects of climate change, or the impact that we have on our planet and its environment. The likes of water temperature, extreme flow events, nutrient enrichment and pollution can have a substantial and cumulative effect on our waters as well as the living creatures within them. For example, Atlantic salmon and sea trout play a vital role in the complex life cycle of the freshwater pearl mussel, as they act as a host in the larval stage. That is just one example of how we cannot afford to lose a link in our ecosystems. I know that the champion for the freshwater pearl mussel, Audrey Nicoll, is taking part in the debate and I am sure that she will be able to expand on that further.
Without trees and foliage on the riverbanks, river temperatures rise, which in turn means that there is no shade for trout or salmon to rest in as they make their way upstream to spawn. Riverwoods is a partnership initiative that is being led by the Scottish Wildlife Trust and is one example of how co-ordinated actions help to create thriving riverbank woodlands and healthy river systems, which help to keep river temperatures where they should be. I thank the organisation and its partners for their work, as well as the landowners and communities who are taking part in landscape-scale restoration projects, such as remeandering to combat the loss of spawning gravel habitat in the rivers.
On the important point about the impact that our waterways have on the species that live within them, this is a good opportunity to highlight the Scottish Government’s wild salmon strategy, which also benefits sea trout and brown trout as they have similar life histories, while all species would benefit from improved river and riverbank conditions. It is appropriate that we acknowledge the work that the Scottish Government is doing in Scotland but also that we recognise the commitment in the strategy to support and push forward collective action in the international arena, particularly to assist the young salmon and sea trout that depart our rivers in surviving the challenges that they face on the high seas and returning to their home rivers to spawn the next generation.
The health of our river basins is a key commitment of our Scottish Government, and I was pleased to see the previous environment minister, in partnership with the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, introduce “The River Basin Management Plan for Scotland 2021-2027”. It sets out ambitious targets to improve water quality in Scotland’s waterways by 15 per cent, to ensure that 81 per cent of Scotland’s water environment is in a good condition by 2027. The plan aims to work with land managers to reduce diffuse pollution from agriculture and to support the passage of migratory fish such as salmon.
I thank the members who supported my motion and the members in the chamber for their attendance, and I look forward to listening to contributions during the debate on this important issue.12:55
I thank my friend and colleague Jackie Dunbar for bringing this important debate to the chamber.
In Scotland, rivers, their small tributaries and the lochs and run-offs that feed them are home to thousands of species. When our rivers are healthy, biodiversity thrives; when our rivers are not looked after, the ill effects are many. For example, on the Forth, as Jackie Dunbar mentioned, industry has had a lasting impact. Everything from chemical and agricultural pollution to forestry can put pressure on the river system.
In my constituency, a wide range of local projects are making strides to support river systems and to recover lost biodiversity. Individual landowners, such as Kate Sankey of West Moss-side organic farm, have encouraged riverbanks to renaturalise after years of dredging, which has seen the return of otters, water voles and, most recently, beavers as a result. The Carse of Stirling project is getting schoolchildren involved in learning about species in wetlands. The Forth Rivers Trust is planting trees along the Allan Water to boost habitat and to provide a wildlife corridor and shade for river species. That is increasingly important as greater extremes of weather brought by climate change see hot, dry summers, which dry up bodies of water, lead to increased risk of fire and decimate water-reliant species.
Winters are wetter, with enormous rainfall over short periods bringing flash floods and washing away roads, fields and habitat. If we support our river systems, we can do a great deal to mitigate that. In November 2021, the Bowser family became the first private landlords in Scotland to legally translocate beavers to unenclosed ponds. Fourteen beavers have since been released on Ardoch Burn near Doune. All came from land in Tayside where lethal control licences had been issued. Last week, I was delighted to visit Niall Bowser at his farm to see where the beavers live. What a wonderful job they have done of transforming the local environment. Unfortunately, the beavers were resting, as they had been very busy building dams, chewing logs and engaging in other beaver behaviour, so I did not see them—maybe next time. Niall does small tours at certain times of the year for those who are interested.
Beavers are often known as ecosystem engineers, helping to provide habitat for young fish, food for invertebrates, deep pools for large fish to rest in, and much more. However, as Niall told me, they also have a transformational impact on the wider environment. At Ardoch Burn in previous summers, ponds and streams evaporated, while in winter they flooded. They also flooded the farm steading below. However, since the beavers’ arrival, their dams have meant that the pond has stayed full through one of the driest summers on record, which has kept thousands of water-dependent species alive.
From my work as a nature champion for the rare azure hawker dragonfly, I know just how important it is to ensure that ponds do not dry up. It is extremely heartening to hear about the positive impact that those projects are achieving. Collaborative working by farmers, local organisations and communities, with a holistic approach, can do so much. We must continue to do all that we can to look after our rivers and watercourses and mitigate the impacts of climate change.12:59
I thank Jackie Dunbar for bringing this important issue to the Parliament in recognition of world rivers day. I refer members to my entry in the register of members’ interests regarding the River Dee. I also note that I was previously the Scottish Environment LINK nature champion for the freshwater pearl mussel, and I enjoyed spending days learning all about the conservation works that are taking place to support a wealth of biodiversity. The pearl mussel is an important indicator species, and its decline is, unfortunately, a shameful testament to the Government’s wilful neglect of our rivers, which I am sure Audrey Nicoll will be able to explain shortly.
The River Dee is recognised as a special area of conservation for its efforts to protect Atlantic salmon, freshwater pearl mussels and otters. Numerous initiatives have been put in place to protect its salmon numbers, such as a catch and release policy and the million trees campaign run by the River Dee Trust, which I was delighted to see shortlisted for a nature of Scotland award last night in Parliament.
Sadly, my mailbox is now filled with messages from constituents, businesses and tourists who are concerned about the declining number of salmon in the River Dee. The cabinet secretary will be aware from my correspondence with her that people are frustrated about seal predation; seals are not just eating and scaring the fish but pushing them off their redds during spawning season and disrupting their reproduction. The Scottish Government’s wild salmon strategy implementation plan rightly seeks a review of the seal licensing system, but it commits to developing non-lethal methods of control, which is disappointing, as we already know that those measures do not work effectively.
Local businesses are already reporting a loss of custom due to the shocking decline in numbers. Fishing plays a vital role in our rural economy, attracting tourists from all over the world and supporting hundreds of jobs in local businesses. I hope that the Scottish Government will take serious action to tackle all predators that are disrupting wildlife in our rivers.
I have also worked with scientists in the community who are concerned about pharmaceuticals in the water. Increases in antibiotics and oestrogenic hormones can be very harmful to local wildlife. There is no reference to that in the Government’s plan, so I ask the Scottish Government to address it.
I turn to the concern of pollution in our rivers. Less than 4 per cent of overflows in Scotland are monitored, compared with more than 90 per cent in England and Wales. SEPA’s licensing conditions do not currently require Scottish Water to report discharge data on either the River Don or the River Dee in my constituency. When Scottish Water confirmed the priority locations that it has identified for its 1,000 new spill monitors, it turned out that the closest location to the north-east was the Invergowrie burn in Dundee. Although £500 million for the improving urban waters route map might sound impressive, that funding is supposed to last until 2027 and does not promise anything for rural communities.
It is clear that the Scottish National Party Government is not doing enough to treat declining salmon numbers, and it is not doing enough to monitor sewage pollution. With rivers such as the Dee and the Don being vital areas for salmon and for conservation, water quality testing and sewage monitoring should be undertaken regularly.
In 2022 alone, monitored overflows in Scotland discharged in excess of 47 billion litres of untreated sewage into rivers, lochs and coastal waters. The exact amount from all overflows is likely to be much higher, given that so few overflows are monitored. The fact of the matter is that the data presented by the SNP Government cannot reflect the true picture, because it simply is not monitoring rivers across Scotland.13:03
I congratulate Jackie Dunbar on securing today’s debate marking world rivers day 2023.
Our rivers are a vital resource in our fight against climate change and biodiversity loss, because our river systems provide a crucial habitat to countless species. As well as the interconnected species such as sea trout, Atlantic salmon and freshwater mussels that are referenced in the motion, our rivers are home to a wide range of insect and plant life, all of which contribute to the health of our wider environment and, ultimately, to our food security and our public health.
Labour welcomes Scottish Water’s improving urban waters route map and the associated investment, but we must also address the complex problems that are endangering wildlife, preventing biodiversity recovery and risking our health. In 2021, the longest sewage overflow event in duration was reported in Aberdeen, in my region. Sewage reportedly spilled into the River Dee for more than four months straight—a shocking 130 days—from April to September. The truly shocking thing, however, is that the volume of waste was not recorded.
We know that sewage overflows can cause algae blooms and loss of biodiversity, and that they can introduce other pollution into our rivers. It is not just nature that suffers; it is our quality of life, as our waterways are a source of recreational enjoyment for many of us. During the pandemic, we were reminded of just how crucial access to nature is to our health and wellbeing. It is clear that monitoring of overflows must improve, but that cannot happen without the installation of spill monitors.
In December 2021, Scottish Water vowed to increase the number of storm drain monitors to more than 1,000 by the end of 2024. However, as of 1 March this year, not a single new device had been installed. When I asked the First Minister to confirm exactly how many of those 1,000 storm drain monitors he expected to be installed by the end of this year, he could not give me a figure. That does little to reassure my constituents in the north-east that an event such as that four-month spill in the River Dee will not happen again. I hope that the minister will provide the Parliament with an update on the progress of that work today.
The importance of affording the highest-possible protection to our natural environment cannot be overstated. However, that is not currently the case for Scotland’s waters. Parliament has previously heard that untreated human waste was discharged into Scotland’s waters more than 10,000 times in a single year. Our rivers are part of a rich water network that connects habitats, species and life across the country. Even where sewage is not discharged directly into our rivers, the impact is still felt in them.
For the sake of our health, our wellbeing and the future of our environment, regulation of Scotland’s waters must be driven by four core principles: keeping Scotland’s water in public hands, ensuring access to clean water for local communities, protecting public health and protecting Scotland’s natural environment, so that next year’s world rivers day can truly be a celebration of our rivers.13:07
I thank Jackie Dunbar for securing the debate.
Having had the privilege of living on the banks of the River Teith for 15 years, I learned very quickly that rivers help to change our whole perception of the natural world and the environment around us. We become far more aware of the changing seasons, of storm surges and droughts, and of their impacts on the river. We get to know the wonderful creatures that live in and around the river, too, so it is an amazing experience.
I enjoyed hearing from Evelyn Tweed about how the beavers that have been reintroduced at Argaty are now thriving. I have been proud to support the Bowsers, over many years, in getting their licence, and I congratulate the minister for finally getting that over the line. That has been a success, and there is no conflict with surrounding landowners. We are now left with the sight of the beavers at the ponds and the amazing benefits that they bring to the natural environment. That is a great success.
In recent years, we have all become increasingly aware of our rivers, as there is a growing movement of wild swimmers, swimming in our lochs, rivers and seas. Earlier this month, I had the pleasure of meeting a group of wild swimmers from Fife. When the group held a wild swim in the River Tay earlier this year, unfortunately, many of the people who were swimming became ill, which was potentially due to a sewage spill from a combined sewage outflow at Stanley. Their main ask of Scottish Water is to provide monitoring and accessible public information, which Mercedes Villalba spoke about, so that they know when there is an increased risk of pollution.
At present, less than 4 per cent of the combined sewer overflows in Scotland are monitored and reported. I know from the Marine Conservation Society that only 11 out of the 496 outflow sites in my region are monitored, with more than 1,300 spillages recorded in 2022.
The water quality in a number of the freshwater habitats in Scotland is deteriorating because of sewage outflows and phosphorus from agricultural run-off or new developments. Monitoring is therefore important if we are to find out what is going on, but we also need to get at the root cause of the problem and invest in solutions. One effective way of doing that is to expand the network of designated bathing water sites to encourage investment between SEPA and Scottish Water. Bathing water designations are not just for coastal beaches; some freshwater sites have been designated, but the numbers in Scotland are still quite low.
The joint work between SEPA, Scottish Water and other stakeholders to monitor and improve water quality has resulted in some pretty dramatic improvements in many designated areas. For those that fall short of the required standard, it also drives targeted investment. However, the guidelines for designating sites in Scotland require that each site receives at least 150 daily visitors, and that deters applications. According to SEPA, that is one reason why only six bathing water applications were received in the past five years in Scotland. England has no threshold for visitors, so the application process is clearly easier.
I want to briefly highlight the Leven programme, which brings together landowners, restoration specialists, the local community and others to restore the River Leven in Fife for the benefit of local people and wildlife. Historically, the Leven played an important role in powering industry. Through the Leven programme, there are plans to restore habitats by planting river woodlands along and within the river, modifying dams to make it easier for fish to migrate, creating ponded areas for wildlife, and, critically, improving public access. All that work connects with the programme to reopen the Levenmouth rail route. It is a great example of joined-up thinking and investment.
I hope that all rivers in Scotland will, in time, have the opportunity for restoration that the Leven has been given. Once again, I thank Jackie Dunbar for giving me the chance to highlight a few of the issues that are at stake here.13:12
I congratulate my friend and colleague Jackie Dunbar on having brought to the chamber the motion on marking world rivers day 2023. As Jackie Dunbar alluded to earlier, as north-east members of the Scottish Parliament, we can both boast that we have two magnificent rivers, the Dee and the Don, running through our respective constituencies.
The motion is comprehensive and it rightly reflects why Scotland is renowned for its fresh waters. They provide our drinking water, they are used to generate electricity, they are essential for the production of our whisky, and they provide a home for iconic species, including the Atlantic salmon and the freshwater pearl mussel.
Free-flowing rivers mean that water can move downstream freely, thereby allowing fish to migrate without restriction, and invertebrates such as the freshwater pearl mussel to thrive. I have vivid and lasting memories of my granny wearing a simple string of pearls from the magnificent River Tay, where I spent much of my childhood. Their significance passed me by at the time, but, in later life, they have taken on a whole new meaning. It will therefore come as no surprise to members to hear that I am delighted to be the nature champion for the freshwater pearl mussel.
Freshwater pearl mussels are one of the United Kingdom’s most threatened species. Scotland holds almost half the global population. They are fully protected, which makes it illegal to take them from a river. This summer, I had the pleasure of joining Craig Macadam of Buglife, Susan Cooksley of the James Hutton Institute and Edwin Third of the River Dee Trust, on the River Dee, where I was so lucky to see freshwater pearl mussels in situ in their natural environment, thriving and safe. It was truly remarkable and an absolute privilege to hold a mussel that was estimated to be around 68 years old.
This might be the one and only time that I agree with Alexander Burnett. Sadly, through various threats, including poaching, water pollution, loss of habitat and climate change, the freshwater pearl mussel is now classified as endangered. How can we preserve not only that vulnerable species but other wildlife species that are reliant on our rivers?
During my day out, I had the pleasure of visiting the restoration project of Easter Beltie burn, near Torphins, which has been returned, from being a straightened agricultural stream, to a natural meandering course, thereby improving habitats for nature and boosting climate resilience. The project has created a stretch of meandering river corridor of more than 2km flowing through 10 hectares of flood plain that is rich in habitats where nature can thrive. I encourage all members to visit it at some point, because it is truly beautiful. That is an example of why nature-based solutions will be crucial in recovering not only Scotland’s freshwater pearl mussel population but our wider wildlife populations.
The Scottish Government has enacted additional measures to improve freshwater pearl mussel population levels, supported by the commitment of organisations such as the James Hutton Institute, the River Dee Trust and many others. The aim is to reintroduce mussels to rivers where they once were and to outlaw disturbance, injury, theft or killing of freshwater pearl mussels. I hope that, with the aid of such measures, there will soon be growing numbers of the pearl mussel.
It is imperative that we maintain the biodiversity of Scottish rivers. I welcome the efforts that are being made by the Scottish Government and all stakeholders to achieve that.
I again thank Jackie Dunbar for lodging the motion and for securing this members’ business debate. I look forward to celebrating world rivers day this weekend with a walk by the River Dee.13:16
Scotland’s rivers define our iconic landscapes. From mountain tributaries to estuaries flowing into the oceans, they provide vital water and rich habitats and help us to adapt to global threats, including climate change and water scarcity. As Mark Angelo, the founder of world rivers day put it,
“Rivers are the arteries of our planet; they are lifelines in the truest sense.”
We have many innovative initiatives under way in Scotland to nurture, improve and protect our rivers. I am proud to outline a few today.
In working with the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency to implement river basin management plans, we are investing £4 million this year to continue the work of the water environment fund. The fund restores access to rivers for migratory fish, including salmon, by removing barriers to fish passage. It also restores urban rivers, thereby providing multiple benefits for biodiversity, climate change adaptation, leisure and flood management.
Since 2021, the Scottish Government’s nature restoration fund has awarded in excess of £2.3 million for projects to restore and revive river habitats, and to improve their resilience to climate change. I was delighted to visit the River Almond to see such work in action and to celebrate the Seafield weir removal project. I have also visited restoration projects along the Dee and the Don, with the re-meandering—what a wonderful word that is—of rivers to allow for spawning habitats; the embedding of felled trees in rivers to allow for spawning habitats for invertebrates and to create shade; and planting along the sides of rivers to provide shade and animal habitats. It is glorious to see those rivers coming back to life.
The Scottish Government is working closely with partners to develop integrated catchment management techniques to restore rivers and to improve natural flood management.
We take the issue of declining populations of wild Atlantic salmon very seriously, and our wild salmon strategy is working with multiple partners to ensure the protection and recovery of that iconic species. I take a different view from my colleague Alexander Burnett about the primacy of seal predation on Atlantic salmon; there are human impacts on the species as well as climate impacts, so it is important that we look at all the issues, in the round, to restore that iconic species to Scotland’s rivers.
A priority theme is improvement of the condition of rivers and giving salmon free access to cold and clean water—they are so sensitive to climate change. Our actions to achieve that are wide ranging and are supporting salmon recovery and benefiting wider river biodiversity. All the actions that are good for salmon are good for other species as well, including the critically endangered freshwater pearl mussel.
We are also committed to ensuring that our efforts are informed by the latest scientific evidence. Earlier this month, the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs, Land Reform and Islands announced funding of more than £500,000 to allow Scotland’s network of fisheries boards and river trusts to monitor salmon this year.
Members have expressed much concern, specifically about sewage spills and overflows—especially on to our beaches and into our rivers—which cause the distressing sanitary waste that we find. This morning, I participated in a beach clean, in which we picked up such waste. It is absolutely distressing—for everyone—that such incidences occur. Over the past decade, Scottish Water has reduced environmental pollution incidents by 60 per cent—from 800 each year to fewer than 300—despite increasingly challenging weather patterns. That is an on-going project. In the period from 2010 to 2021, Scottish Water invested around £880 million on targeted improvements to environmental quality.
Scottish Water is also investing an extra £0.5 billion over the period 2021 to 2027, as part of its “Improving Urban Waters—Route Map”. Members including Mercedes Villalba have raised this issue; I will respond to her question. Through comprehensive asset studies, Scottish Water is identifying the right locations for increased monitoring to maximise the benefit to our environment and to ensure value for money. I am pleased to confirm that it expects to install more than 1,000 additional monitors by August 2024, which is ahead of the timetable that is set out in the route map.
I am excited by today’s debate because it has provided such an enthusiastic discussion of biodiversity. Members have mentioned otters, water voles, beavers, herons, salmon, trout, dragonflies and, of course, the pearl mussel. I will add a species. This morning, while on the beach clean, I heard the announcement that oysters have been returned to the Forth, in which they had been extinct for 100 years. Although we found piles of oyster shells on the beach this morning, they were more than 100 years old. Today, the species returns to the Forth.
So much effort is being put into restoring our glorious rivers to what they should be. I was excited to hear Evelyn Tweed’s stories about beavers. She noted how important they are in preventing flooding and in storing of water during dry seasons. That will become more and more crucial as climate change progresses. Our ability to manage water is tied up with how we manage the natural environment around our rivers.
That includes managing river temperatures—another issue that colleagues have raised. So many species are sensitive to the temperature of the water in our rivers. By shading the rivers, through planting along the banks and ensuring that there are obstructions in the water that can provide shade and cool spots for important species such as salmon to spawn, we are restoring the natural balance.
We, in Scotland, are on a journey to progress and improve our biodiversity and to improve our clean water—to make sure that there is clean water everywhere and that the standard of our rivers is very high. We want nature to thrive throughout Scotland, and we want businesses and communities to enjoy, and benefit from, our rivers.
I thank colleagues for the debate and I congratulate Jackie Dunbar.
That concludes the debate.13:24 Meeting suspended.
14:30 On resuming—