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Low Flows Ballater, Aberdeenshire
Opinion piece by Dr Rachel Helliwell published in the Herald (22nd August 2023) for World Water Week

There is no escaping the fact that we are facing serious global challenges when it comes to water. Growing populations, climate-change driven extreme weather events that result in shocks to our natural and built environment, depleted groundwater supplies, pollution from agriculture, industry and sewage… the list goes on. 

And yes, even Scotland, a country with an ambition to become the first Hydro Nation for its clean, abundant water resources that contributes to a vibrant economy, is not immune to these challenges, with 34% of its waterbodies failing to achieve good standards.

As it’s World Water Week this week (August 20-24), I want to take the opportunity to reflect on what those challenges are, but also what we can do about them.

The reality is that climate change remains the single greatest, long-term threat that we face, and the impacts are being increasingly felt in Scotland.  For example, this summer’s extremely dry June compounded the problems of already low ground water levels.

Whilst the unusually wet July that followed, may have partially offset a potentially serious situation, the threat to water reserves persists with the number of extreme drought events in Scotland potentially increasing from an average of one every 20 years to one every three years.

These mean that communities can experience a lack of water, particularly where there is a reliance on private water supplies, and there is a clear need for more research to underpin strategic planning in this area.

On the other hand, we are also witnessing an increase in severe wet weather events, like Storm Frank and Arwen, meaning that households and businesses, as well as our natural environments, are being impacted by flooding. The extremes bite at both ends and this trend looks set only to increase.

But, taking water scarcity and flooding as an example, there is an opportunity to address these issues together, while also realising wider environmental, social and economic benefits.

The first step in addressing these issues is to better understand the nature of the problem. To do this, scientists here at The James Hutton Institute are looking at regional differences in and vulnerability to water scarcity across Scotland, including how rapidly the situation can deteriorate and recover.

This is critical to major Scottish industries that rely on these resources, from farming to whisky production, to be able plan and manage their operations.

Alongside this work, other studies at the Hutton are focusing on novel approaches to flood management, such as nature-based solutions. These are where more natural environments like ponds or wetlands are reinstated or created. These aim to provide water storage in river catchment areas, with the potential to recharge groundwater, slow river flows, reduce flooding and provide a vital water resource for people and wildlife during periods of water scarcity.

These are examples of some of the coordinated research that brings scientists from a wide range of disciplines together to find innovative solutions to protect people, businesses and support nature.

The Scottish Government understands that effective approaches to water and catchment management doesn’t just happen without significant leadership and coordination. That’s why, through its Hydro Nation agenda, it is supporting centres of expertise such CREW (the Centre of Expertise for Waters and Scotland’s Hydro Nation International Centre. These organisations, based at the Hutton, are responsible for building the necessary partnerships between talented natural and social scientists and engineers together with policy makers, planners, practitioners, and stakeholders – all sharing their knowledge, skills and expertise to address the many complex challenges facing the water sector today.

Looking forward, effective partnerships like these will be fundamental to policy success in areas such as the management of other new and increasing challenges, such as the growing range and mix of chemicals, pharmaceuticals and contaminants entering our waters. But there’s also a need to reduce surface flooding in urbans areas and support the just transition from fossil fuels to alternatives like hydrogen energy. Our water plays a key role in all these areas. Through working in partnership, Scotland, as a Hydro Nation, is ideally positioned to address these challenges and be a leader in transformative change in the worldwide water sector.