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Water Shortage in Scotland: How the Famously Wet Country Became Water Scarce

by Denisa Ogoyi Europe Jan 3rd 20226 mins
Water Shortage in Scotland: How the Famously Wet Country Became Water Scarce

Climate change is affecting countries in various ways, from warming temperatures to severe and more frequents floods. But for Scotland, one of the wettest countries in Europe, is becoming water scarce. Drought adversely affects ecosystems and if it prolongs, the changes could be irreversible. Scotland’s National Water Scarcity Plan sets out ways in which responsible bodies, stakeholders, businesses and people to manage water resources to minimise the impact on the environment and tackle water shortage in Scotland.

Scotland is a water rich and water savvy country, where its water is sourced from either rain or snow. Scotland’s average rainfall rarely falls under 1,500 millimetres per year, however the rainfall total varies across Scotland. The western highlands of Scotland in particular, is one of the wettest places in Europe with annual rainfall reaching up to 4,577 mm. Average measurable rainfall also occurs over 250 days in the Highlands and 175 days in other parts within the year. What’s more, the country is home to Loch Ness, one of the world’s most famous water bodies, which comprises more freshwater (7,452 million cubic metres) than all English and Welsh lakes combined. 

Drier Conditions in Scotland

It is known that global temperatures are rising all round the world and Scotland is no exception. According to research by Fairlie Kirkpatrick Baird, one of NatureScot’s graduate placement staff, extreme droughts have been on rise in Scotland in recent years. 

“When we think of extreme climate events in Scotland, we usually think of flooding and storms, but droughts are increasing here too,” said Baird “As in the drought over the summer of 2018, we are already seeing the negative impacts that can have on human and ecological environments.” The study shows that an increase in extreme droughts has wide-ranging implications, which will occur likely not just in the distant future, but over the next 20 years or so. 

Scotland has experienced 10 of its warmest years since 1997. Looking at the figures from the stations with more than 50 years old data, 71% of recorded warmest July days occurred within the last 20 years. Measurements from the longest–serving weather stations in Scotland recorded their warmest January in 20 years and almost 90% of them recorded their warmest February day.

As a result of rising temperatures, Loch Ness has dropped to its lowest level in five years, according to the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA). It also confirmed that drier than usual conditions in recent months have likely been a “significant contributing factor” for the drop.

New research published in February 2021 by an organisation formerly known as  the Scottish Natural Heritage showed that the extreme dry periods could increase from an average of one every 20 years to one every three years, and could last two to three months longer than in the past. 

Environmental Impacts of Water Shortage in Scotland

Naturally, ecosystems can adapt to some short-term conditional changes. However if the stresses are prolonged, greater and potentially irreversible environmental impacts will occur. 

With increased drought, river level drops, and the depth and width of the channel will contract and flow velocities will reduce. This may fragment the river and reduce the suitable habitat space.

Water shortage can reduce soil’s ability to support crops. This can consequently affect fish, animals and plant life. Wildlife habitat may become degraded due to insufficient soil quality and lack of important plants for building nests. If the river completely dries up, it creates a  problem for animals that are dependent on the river. Biodiversity may be affected significantly, where frequent or long-lasting droughts can mean too much stress on endangered species. 

You might also like: Are We Running Out of Water?

What Water Shortage in Scotland Could Mean for the Economy 

One of Scotland’s best-known products, whisky, is intrinsic to this beautiful country. The majority of Scottish whisky distilleries have been built right next to a river or lake for easier access to water. 

The word ‘whisky’ originated from the Gaelic word “uisge,” meaning “water.” It is proven that water improves the taste of whisky because alcohol molecules and those that determine the whisky’s flavour stick together. Whisky pairs well with water as wine pairs well with cheese.

Water is considered the most important factor in making good whisky. Water needs to be clean, clear and free of all the taste changing impurities such as iron. Some other whiskeys from Kentucky, Maryland, Indiana use water rich in carbonates, which alters the flavour. Scottish water, on the other hand, has one of the best qualities in the world. In the annual report published in 2017, the Drinking Water Quality Regulator for Scotland said that 99.9% of samples passed stringent water quality tests and the quality of the water in Scotland is considered as one of the best in the world. 

On average, a total of 296 litres of cooling water and 17 litres of process water were used for every litre of whisky produced. Currently there are 134 operating whisky distilleries across Scotland and 36 bottles (70cl @40% ABV) of Scotch whisky are shipped from Scotland to 166 markets around the world every second. According to the Scotch Whisky Association, the Scotch whisky industry contributes roughly £5 billion to the British economy each year. The United Kingdom, which Scotland is part of, generates more revenue from Scotch whisky than it does from shipbuilding.

Scotland’s National Water Scarcity Plan 

To prevent water shortage in Scotland, the government plays an active role in improving the quality of all fresh and marine waters in the country and in ensuring all the water resources are managed and supplied responsibly.

The reduced amount of rain showers during summer, increased demand for water, and the rising awareness about water scarcity resulted in the first Scotland’s National Water Scarcity Plan in July 2020. The purpose of the plan is to set out how water resources will be managed prior to and during periods of prolonged dry weather. 

To successfully manage water resources, all stakeholders must take part in minimising the impacts during periods of water scarcity. Nowadays, the forecaster can predict potential water shortages even weeks ahead and that’s why all the stakeholders should have a plan to deal with the range of conditions they may experience in advance. They should monitor their water usage and equipment to ensure they are operating at maximum efficiency and avoiding any unnecessary leakages.

Of course, we all can help reduce water intake by simple actions like taking bath instead of showers, or taking short showers, turning off the faucets when they’re not in use, fixing any leaks, as well as investing in low flush toilets. 

For those who own businesses and use large amounts of water, other actions can be taken, such as making sure there are no leaks in the equipment when irrigating land, or switching to alternative supplies such as boreholes. 

There’s scientific consensus that the natural systems around the world are being affected by regional climate changes, especially increased global temperature, which disrupts weather patterns. Many countries around the world are experiencing extreme weather events.

“Everyone agrees that water is a vital resource. We need to get used to the idea that, even in Scotland, it is a finite resource – as shown by the increasing severity of the water scarcity picture in large areas of the country. This is just one of the many consequences of climate change Scotland is facing, and it is becoming more common,” Terry A’Hearn, Chief Executive at the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, said. 

Global warming has taken effect in the world over the last century and the only way to reduce the consequences of global warming on the environment is to take urgent action. To prevent significant harm on the environment and peoples’ health in Scotland, responsible bodies have to monitor the changing weather patterns, communicate well with each other and apply the preventive measures where possible. 


About the Author

Denisa Ogoyi

Denisa is a sustainability consultant based in Edinburgh, Scotland. She holds two Master degrees, one in Environmental Management and one in Environmental Sustainability. She loves reading about environmental issues and success stories and writes about them to help others see and understand the issues surrounding us that we tend to overlook.

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