SCOTS researchers have launched an investigation over concerns that rain-soaked Scotland is increasingly being hit by drought.
Scottish Government funded partnership, Centre of Expertise for Waters (CREW) is funding the probe which comes three months after Scotland was on water scarcity alert with some parts of the country needing double the “normal” amount of autumn rainfall to return water reservoir levels to what they should be at the time of year.
Scottish Water said in October that maintaining some public water supplies remained a “significant challenge” after the second driest summer in 160 years.
The company said it was “unusual” for it to ask customers in autumn to take “simple steps” to conserve water.
The Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) said above average rainfall was required to see long-term recovery as a “significant rainfall deficit” had built up over the summer.
During the period of greatest water demand in July, there were more than 30 tankers transporting supplies by road around the country and, while that reduced through August it was continuing in some areas where demand remained high, such as Tighnabruaich and Skye.
Both Scottish Water and SEPA expressed fear a repeat of parched conditions next summer. SEPA said only “above average rainfall” over the winter would make up for the shortage we have experienced in 2021.
Researchers from Heriot-Watt University and the University of Edinburgh have now been enlisted by CREW to investigate how people will be able to cope with future droughts in Scotland.
Scotland experienced water scarcity in 2018, 2020 and 2021.
And the researchers say that droughts and water scarcity are expected to increase due to climate change, alongside extreme rainfall.
This could affect private water supplies to communities and businesses.
The new project will investigate the social and environmental factors that impact how people are affected by drought and produce policy recommendations.
Kerri McClymont, a PhD student in Heriot-Watt’s School of Energy, Geoscience, Infrastructure and Society who will lead the project said: “Scotland is really good at assessing flood risk, we know what we’re doing. But when it comes to droughts we just don’t have the same information available.
“We’re going to use the knowledge we already have on the factors that control the underlying social vulnerability to floods and look for commonalities to adapt it for droughts, which are becoming more frequent.
“The focus will be on the social and environmental factors that affect people’s ability to respond to or recover from a hazard event like drought. This will cover everything from people’s access to insurance, how isolated they are and what access they have to emergency supplies.”
Researchers say the River Spey and the River Tay have been identified as drought hotspots in Scotland where the frequency of droughts could see a two-or three-fold rise.
Scotland experienced a drought in 2018 which caused large areas of the country to experience water scarcity, with over 500 private water supplies running dry nationwide – particularly in the North East.
In July, people with reduced private water supplies were offered free bottled water through a Scottish Government support scheme.
It came after some springs, streams and rivers used for private supplies, particularly in the north and west of Scotland were running dry and, despite the forecasts of heavy rain for parts of Scotland, it was feared many remained vulnerable.
Around 3% of Scotland’s population is on a private water supply – over 150,000 people. One-third of the population in Argyll and Bute alone has a private water supply.
Professor Lindsay Beevers from the University of Edinburgh who is also working on the project said: “In Scotland, lots more people have a private water supply than in the UK as a whole, especially in rural areas. This will pose a problem as droughts increase, as it makes resilience planning more complex.
“Our project will provide policymakers with the necessary knowledge to communicate more efficiently with the people in Scotland who are exposed to more frequent droughts.”
In 2019, the water level of a Highlands loch is thought to have dropped to its lowest in at least 750 years.
Loch Vaa, near Aviemore, had been mysteriously losing water since September last year.
The Scottish Environment Protection Agency had suggested the loch had suffered due to a “relatively dry” winter.
Dr Katya Dimitrova-Petrova, project manager for CREW on the project said: “We are very excited to have the McClymont and Beevers team as part of an innovative policy pull programme where Scottish researchers drive the research to address current gaps in environmental policy. The team has chosen a very relevant topic, given the pressures climate change and droughts are already posing on communities.”
The final result is expected in the form of a policy report that can contribute to Scotland’s next Water Scarcity Plan.