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In depth: Warning that drought in Highlands and eastern Scotland will only get worse

By David Porter

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The Future Farming Expo in Aberdeen this week saw amongst its guest speakers SEPA's interim head of functions, Nathan Critchlow-Watton who gave a stark warning over the increasing issue of drought in the northern and eastern parts of Scotland.

Nathan Critchlow-Watton discussed the issue of drought. Picture; David Porter
Nathan Critchlow-Watton discussed the issue of drought. Picture; David Porter

He explained that: "Our water is key to many industries, not just irrigation.

"It's very important to the Scottish economy and the perception of Scotland on the world stage.

"We're not just talking about irrigation, we're talking about distilleries, power generation, drinking water, golf courses.

"But on irrigation, there are something like 600 irrigation system points around the country with abstraction licences, most of them are for farming, with some for livestock and a few for golf courses.

Extraction takes place at around 600 points across Scotland.
Extraction takes place at around 600 points across Scotland.

"They are all heavily dependant on surface water and ground water.

"For context only around 1 per cent of water that lands on Scottish soil is stored, for the rest we are entirely reliant on rainfall, rivers and ground water systems."

"The question for all of us is how resilient are we now in the face of climate change and are we ready for a future that looks very different and are we prepared - to which I think the answer is no."

He continued: "This is a challenge for us going forward and you will have seen over the last two years significant droughts that affected businesses, the economy and the environment.

"The projections (which I will come on to) are that this is only going to get worse.

"There have been quite a lot of headlines in the media about this particularly as its Scotland and we are seen as being a very water rich place."

The River Spey saw record low levels of water in 2023.
The River Spey saw record low levels of water in 2023.

Citing examples he said "Rivers like the Eden have seen their lowest level since 2003, the second lowest in a 55 year record.

"Strathmiglo saw the water completely dry up, so we are not just looking at low levels, we are seeing conditions where there is nothing in the environment.

"Future projections, depending on how you calculate them - but at present we are looking at a situation like this one in every 20 years, by 2040 one in three years, by 2050 it will be every other year.

"By 2050 every other year will see the level of drought will be of the magnitude we saw last year.

"Drought used to be quite a rare event but since 2018 we have seen water scarcity in some parts of Scotland every single year and this is all in line with climate change predictions.

"And as you will have seen this past weekend this comes with massive amounts of to much water at other times of the year so we need systems in place for low levels and also resilience and being able to cope with high volumes."

"We are going to see hotter drier summers with greater extremes.

"The fundamental message is that this is only going to get worse."

He said: "Drought events are going to become more frequent in the east and of longer duration.

"It is going to be a significant issue for agriculture."

"By comparison, 1976 which is cited as one of the worst drought years was no worse than 2018 and this leads into a vicious cycle - we see low river levels, we see falling soil moisture which leads to a deficit which leads to the need for irrigation which reduces water available in the system.

"There is no neat solution to this."

Drought data shows the situation over the summer months.
Drought data shows the situation over the summer months.

On SEPA's aproach - "We are trying to provide as much predictive information as possible and the very last stage is to vary water licences or suspend them.

"We do this to avoid long term damage to the environment and we acknowledge that drought will always cause some harm but we are trying to avoid this spreading over multiple years.

"We are not going to regulate our way out of drought.

"All regulation does is at the very end it makes sure there is some water left in the environment.

"We have to do all we can to extend the period that water is available and regulation is the last resort.

"Suspending licences comes when there is about a weeks worth left and all we are doing is putting a pause in place."

He explained: "We publish reports every week and we hope people are familiar with it and enables them to plan ahead."

"In 2022 we went into the summer season with low levels in the east and it gradually progresses over the country.

"Heavy rain can reset the metrics, but the bulk of the problems hit in August."

" In 2023, the reduced rainfall hit other areas including Skye and the Western Isles."

"Comparing the years there is lot of Scotland affected and we entered 2023 with less water in the system and July caused serious issues in Skye and Aberdeenshire."

"Every year some part of Scotland will be affected by water scarcity and by 2050 it will be an ongoing problem."

"Long term we need better metering and better cooperation on water resources and new irrigation technology."

"I am responsible for reservoir safety and there is no goldilocks time of year, its either flood or drought at the moment."

"What we are looking at is irrigation lagoons and there is funding available (£30,000) if you create a reservoir which is when you are raising water above the level of the land, can fall under the reservoir act needs engineering assessment and can be much more expensive and dangerous as you are holding water up, were a lagoon digs down to create the storage but it is not a silver bullet.

"We also have to ask long term are we growing the right crops and is that sustainable.

To the future - "We will go through advice and warning and will suspend licences if need be but we need a new approach as the climate is changing and we cant regulate our way out of this.

"We need to think of other solutions and the key thing is that 10 years ago we could probably say this is the right course of action and we will put in measures that will last us another 10 years.

"I dont that is the case anymore.

"Everything is moving to quickly."

"We are looking at how policy support on how this can help - France and Spain have been examples of changes."

"Water is already scare and droughts are going to become more common, and we have to adapt."

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