Coming back from a trip, then delighting in the taste of a glass of water at home. Sinking deeper into your coat as the rain streams down it. Walking, running, or cycling around a loch, or along a river. In Scotland, we have a close relationship with water, like it or not.

Water is essential to life, so arguably Scottish Water, our publicly owned water and sewerage company, is the most important public service. Certainly, it is one that most of us use every day, though usually without thinking about it.

Its job might seem simple. Collect what falls from the skies, distribute it and then take away the waste. The reality is different. Water must be cleaned and made safe for drinking after it is taken from our lochs and rivers, then piped down every street to all homes and businesses. Wastewater must be collected from where we live and work, treated and safely returned to the environment, and surface water dealt with to prevent flooding.

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Scottish Water has recognised that it needs to listen to its customers and their communities. To help it do that it supported the creation of an independent Customer Forum, in partnership with the Water Industry Commission for Scotland and Citizens Advice Scotland.

Our role as the Customer Forum is to ensure people’s views are understood and reflected in Scottish Water’s plans. Over the past two years we have probed and challenged, suggested and encouraged actions in the interests of customers. In a business where infrastructure can last for centuries, a long-term strategic plan is needed.

That is particularly important in the context of the single biggest challenge facing us all: the climate emergency. For the Scottish Water that poses a twin challenge: not only ending any contribution to causing climate change, but also ensuring it is still able to supply water and take away wastewater in the face of significantly changing weather patterns.

Customers are already seeing the impact of global heating on their water services. The dry summer of 2018 came close to real water shortages, while intense rainfall last year caused flash flooding, impacting on sewer infrastructure, in many parts of Scotland.

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The most dramatic shift in Scottish Water’s approach we have helped secure over the last two years has been to take addressing climate change to the centre of future strategy. Our research shows customers want Scottish Water to tackle climate change issues, helping maintain the quality and reliability of their water services, and we are pleased that their new Strategic Plan, A Sustainable Future Together, seeks to embrace addressing these challenges.

The magnitude of Scottish Water’s task – to achieve net-zero emissions by 2040 – comes in the year 160 world leaders are due to attend COP26, the international climate change summit in Glasgow this November.

Scottish Water’s strategic plan addresses the needs and aspirations of customers in many areas. For the first time it sets a target to remove all remaining lead from the public water network. It commits to putting customers and communities at the heart of what it does, delivering wider public benefit, for example, increasing the availability of top-up taps and providing better access to its land. It recognises the need to use customers’ money efficiently, to provide value.

We have fought hard on behalf of customers to ensure Scottish Water has committed to customers priorities in the three strategic outcomes set out in its plan published last week: service excellence; going beyond net zero emissions; and delivering great value.

Delivering on the detail behind the headlines will be tough. The one thing we can be certain of is uncertainty. The development of solutions to achieve these outcomes is at an early stage. Scottish Water must develop a route-map to achieving net zero emissions, requiring new technology and new approaches to using water infrastructure to green our cities. It must increase its renewable energy generation from sewage, its assets and land.

For Scottish Water the coming decades will be ones of necessary change and innovation. To succeed it will have to be open with its customers about the challenges ahead. It must help people to use water wisely and to avoid putting fats, oils and other materials that create fatbergs into the wastewater network. It needs stronger partnerships with customers, communities, developers and local authorities amongst others to manage surface water to prevent flooding.

What is required needs to be an endeavour shared with customers and communities, from which there must be mutual benefits. That means that Scottish Water needs to continuously strive to understand its customers and communities, shaping the way it operates to meet their needs and aspirations. Having been remarkably open with and listened to the Customer Forum, Scottish Water must now forge a closer relationship with customers, sharing with them the challenges it faces in a national engagement programme.

In the future this Strategic Plan may be considered the point at which Scottish Water evolved from being a core service delivery company, to one ever more focused on the big challenges of the future, delivering and supporting the widest possible public benefits for the charges customers pay.

Peter Peacock, is the chair of the Customer Forum, which represents customers interests in the water sector in Scotland. Scotland.