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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.

CRW2023_01: Hydro Sector engagement over environmentally effective and cost-efficient sediment management at impoundments

Hydro Dam - Photo credit: Shasta Marrero

Type of project: Capacity Building

Aim: The project has two main aims. The first is a science communication exercise to raise awareness in the hydro sector of basic river geomorphological processes. This will provide a platform to help raise awareness of: (a) the ecological importance of sediment continuity to rivers and of the environmental risks of not properly addressing this in permit applications; and (b) of the commercial risks posed by climate change-related increases in the rate of sediment delivery to hydro and water supply impoundments. The second aim is to improve understanding and raise awareness of the cost effectiveness of different sediment management options available to address these risks. These improved levels of understanding will make the process of applying for, issuing, and reviewing permits more efficient for hydro-scheme operators and SEPA respectively.

Key questions: 

  • To what extent are hydro-scheme operators aware of the hydrological and geomorphological impacts of climate change and of the associated risks to their operations over decadal to century time scales?
  • To what extent are operators aware of the effects of their activities on sediment transport and the consequent effects on river habitats and species in adjacent river reaches?
  • To what extent are the operators aware of the different sediment management options available to them and to what extent have they considered using them at their sites?
  • What are the potential cost-benefits of applying these different options and to what extent are the operators aware of them?

Project Status: Project in progress



Project Objectives

Contact CREW Staff

CRW2023_05: Future predictions of water scarcity in Scotland: impacts to distilleries and agricultural abstractors

River Feshie near Aviemore - Photo Credit: Paul Glendell

CREW Code: CRW2023_05

Theme: Hydrological Extremes, Coasts and Risk Management

Project status: Project complete. Click here to visit the publication page to view the project outputs.

Type of project: Capacity Building

Lead research team: The Jame Hutton Institute

Scotland’s climate is changing, and we expect to see further changes in seasonal precipitation patterns that may increase the frequency and severity of water scarcity conditions, including droughts. Drought is a prolonged period of abnormally low rainfall, leading to water scarcity and environmental stress (formally defined in Scotland as when river water levels are less than 5% of their normal flows, for more than 30 days). Overall, droughts are predicted to increase particularly in the eastern parts of Scotland. These changes are likely to affect water users in these regions, particularly agriculture (livestock, arable and horticulture) and the distilling sector.

The aim of this project was to provide summaries of the future predictions of water scarcity in Scotland and the impacts this may have, tailored to three groups of abstractors: crop producers, livestock producers and distilleries.  The project summarised evidence on changes to the availability of surface waters and groundwaters for abstraction; as well as changes to climatic water balance for rainfed farming systems. This evidence was then put in the context of how the water resources are being used by the three groups and how future water scarcity may impact the sector.

The evidence review highlighted that there is likely to be overall deficit in climate-water balance during the summer months in eastern Scotland, with some uncertainty about how the shoulder months of April and September will be affected; that the number and duration of surface water drought events are likely to double by the middle of the century; and that there are questions about the resilience of groundwater supplies, particularly in areas with low storage and decreasing potential recharge.  Overall, our farmers and distillers focus group participants were aware of water scarcity as a business risk. The irrigated crop sector and the distillery sector have invested in technological solutions, such as efficient irrigation systems, offline irrigation lagoons and thermal vapour compressing, whereas the rainfed farming systems identified fewer adaptation options. Several barriers to wider uptake of adaptation options were identified. Recommendations are provided, including the need for increased data on actual water used by abstractors, alongside expanding the monitoring and analysis of groundwater resources, to improve our understanding of the different dimensions of water scarcity; and ways to overcome barriers to uptake of the available adaptation responses.

This project has completed. Click here to visit the publication page to view the project outputs.




Project Objectives

Contact CREW Staff

CRW2023_02: Creating healthy and resilient river systems across Scotland: prioritising research and development gap opportunities for river woodlands.

Tree planting along riverside - Photo credit: Steve Addy

Type of project: Capacity Building

Aim: The overall aim of this project is to prioritise the research and development (R&D) gap opportunities identified in the Riverwoods evidence review for creating healthy and resilient river systems through improved riparian and floodplain management in Scotland, and identify opportunities to address these gaps to enable investment in new and extended river woodlands, and improved/restored riverscape environments.

Project Status: Project in progress



Project Objectives

Contact CREW Staff

CRW2023_03: Assessing the impact of forestry on water quality in Scotland: A review of modelling capabilities

Autumn forest with loch in background - Photo credit: Carol Taylor

Type of project: Capacity Building

Aim:  The overall aim of this project is to review the current and potential risks to water quality from commercial forestry operations and the suitability of available models to assess these risks.







Key questions:

  • Which pollutants are of most concern?
  • What types of water bodies and associated habitats are most susceptible to deterioration from forestry pressures (e.g., increased or reduced flow)?
  • Can we identify the most common risk factors?
  • Are the data available to understand the spatial distribution of these risk factors
  • How can the pollutant loss associated with these risk factors be estimated? Are there sufficient data / literature /expert judgement?
  • Can we develop a range of risk scenarios for forestry similar to the SAGIS scenarios for agriculture?
  • Are there models already available which could model these risk scenarios?
  • If necessary, which model developments would be needed to model forestry accurately

Project Status: Project in progress


Project Objectives

Contact CREW Staff

CRW2022_05 Understanding the relationship between water scarcity and land use in private water supply catchments – a review

Large tank Photo credit: M. Bower

CREW code: CRW2022_05

Theme: Land and Water Resource Management

Type of project: Capacity Building

Project status: Project in progress

Overview: Climate change and increasing temperatures are putting an increasing focus on water use and water efficiency. In catchments, land use plays a significant role in water availability and resilience to climate change. Land use impacts the overall amount of water available and/or when the water passes through the catchment. The project should consider both the amount and timing of water availability with a focus on how much water is available to private water supplies. Water resources can be impacted by different types of land use, but private water supplies are often overlooked in strategies despite being highly vulnerable to changes in the environment.

Aim: The overall aim of the project is to build an evidence base that includes the spectrum of risks from land use on water scarcity in private water supply catchments. This will inform risk assessment implementation as part of the recast Drinking Water Directive alignment process.

Key questions:

  1. What literature is available regarding risks to water availability within Scottish catchments from different land uses identified by the project including but not limited to forestry and wind farms?
  2. What are the results of an assessment of the risks to private water supplies including consideration of the type of water supply (e.g., surface water, shallow or deep groundwater)?
  3. What are the best practises in other countries focussing on temperate regions and what regulatory protection measures do they use?
  4. What does a review of the protection measures currently used indicate?
  5. What are the areas for improvements in terms of risk assessment, enforcement and policy making in Scotland?

Lead research team: University of Aberdeen


Project Objectives

Contact CREW Staff
24th May 2023

Poster session: RESAS Science, Evidence, and Policy

CREW aims to support evidence-based decisions that impact water and society.

This is achieved by ensuring that the right information gets to the right people in the right way at the right time. The programme offers three types of projects that address research gaps for CREW’s ten requesting organisations, these projects are delivered by Higher Education Institutes.

CREW’s poster for this session highlights an overview of the themes and approach for the 2022-2027 programme, a project spotlight shows how CREW operates in practice and the impact footprint detailing CREW’s project lifecycle and intended impact.



24th May 2023

RESAS Science, Evidence, and Policy Conference 2023


The CREW team attended the Research Rural and Environment Science and Analytical Services Division of Scottish Government (RESAS) Science, Evidence, and Policy Conference held at Dynamic Earth in Edinburgh on 18 May 2023.

The conference brought together stakeholders from across the rural and environmental research and policy landscapes in Scotland.

Researchers and policy makers from across the public sector discussed key cross-cutting strategic issues, research community priorities and potential future evidence needs.




Key messages/challenges:

  • Need to bridge the gap between science and policy
  • Science and evidence are needed to support emerging and future policy changes
  • Need transition to systems thinking approach
  • Focus on ‘just’ transitions
  • Do we accept to accept change?
  • We must use our agency to take action now and affect change in the real world

At World Water Day this year (22nd March 2023), the Hydro Nation Energy Innovation Programme (HNEIP) officially launched. Check out the World Water Day video here:

The HNEIP is a new four-year programme funded by the Scottish Government that will coordinate a wide range of academic expertise to support Scotland’s water industry to develop innovative new products and approaches to help drive down emissions.

Read the full story here: Launch of new innovation programme to support the reduction and elimination of carbon emissions in the water supply sector (

World Water Day – Edinburgh 22 March 2023


On World Water Day Scotland joined the global water community on March 22nd World Water Day with a hybrid event on the theme of ‘Accelerating Change through Partnerships and Cooperation.

The CREW team attended the World Water Day Conference held in Edinburgh. This year’s conference was led by Hydro Nation International Centre, with support from CREW, The James Hutton Institute, the Hydro Nation Scholars, and the Scottish Government.





The speakers and attendees were challenged to ‘Be the change you want to see in the world’ recognising the role of water as a catalyst for that change across these five sub-themes:

  • Water and health
  • Water and sustainable engineering
  • Water and digitalisation
  • Water and international cooperation
  • Water and policy

The plenary sessions focussed on how emerging research is translated to ‘settled science’ that can inform policy. From wastewater testing for the presence of COVID-19 to scientific research of emerging contaminants such as PFAS, microplastics, and emerging concerns like anti-microbial resistance. View the Full Programme here and the Policy Brief here, containing the key messages from the day.

CREW held its second Annual CREW Lecture following the World Water Day Event, with a keynote from renowned international expert on participatory projects, Minni Jain, who challenged us all to:

‘Speak the language of water to regenerate, rejuvenate and return the water cycles on our planet to health again.’











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