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Wet winter doesn’t negate need for water scarcity plans

Date published: 13 March 2024


Nobody will be surprised to hear that Scotland experienced a very wet autumn and winter - but abstractors are being reminded they still need to plan ahead in case conditions change.

The Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) have published the first Water Situation Report of 2024, providing information on water stores in the ground, lochs and reservoirs.

Weather conditions over autumn and winter have a major influence on water resources and the risk of water scarcity in the following summer.

As reported last month, SEPA issued a record number of regional Flood Alerts and local Flood Warnings to the public this winter. A total of 720 messages were sent between 1st September 2023 and 16th February 2024. The previous record of 714 was set over autumn and winter 2015/16.

Areas along the east coast of Scotland saw higher than average rainfall throughout autumn and winter, with some parts seeing 170% of the winter average. Elsewhere rainfall totals have been within the normal range, and natural water storage in lochs and groundwater is between normal and high for this time of year.

However, if the country experiences particularly dry weather over spring and summer it could still lead to water scarcity and water users are urged to keep an eye on the situation and plan ahead to manage water supplies sustainably.

Stephen McGuire, Senior Hydrology Specialist at SEPA, said:

“It would be easy to look at the amount of rain Scotland has seen over the last few months and think that water scarcity isn’t an issue. The risk is currently lower than normal as a result, but the reality is we can’t rule out a repeat of the water shortages businesses have experienced in previous years - if we have drier than average conditions over the next few months things can change quite quickly. 

“Water abstractors licensed by SEPA need to make sure they are prepared to deal with water scarcity, so I would encourage them to consider how to improve their business resilience and manage water wisely during prolonged dry conditions. We can help by providing advice and guidance on ways to reduce pressure on the water environment. 

“Taking the right steps now will lower the likelihood of resources reaching a critical level again this summer and SEPA having to suspend licences to protect the water environment.”

Scotland's Changing Climate

Scotland’s climate is changing and businesses are experiencing the impacts of more frequent extreme weather events like water scarcity. The number of serious drought events is projected to increase from an average of one every 20 years, to one every two years in the near future.

In 2023 the first area reached Alert level at the end of May, and five areas (Rivers Annan and Nith in the southwest, the Black Isle, the Outer Hebrides and the Loch Maree area of the Highlands) had reached significant water scarcity by the end of June.

Significant impacts from water scarcity were apparent during 2022, particularly in the east of the country. Groundwater levels in the region were their lowest since records began in 2009 and there was below average rainfall in eight out of the twelve months. SEPA had to take steps to protect the environment from the effects of prolonged dry weather and suspensions were imposed on 175 water abstraction licences in four catchment areas.

From May, SEPA will publish a weekly Water Situation Report looking at the latest conditions across Scotland. 

Notes to Editor

Advice ahead of this summer

All water abstractors should be aware of the potential risk of water scarcity this summer, monitor their water use, and plan ahead for a range of weather conditions.

Businesses should review available options to increase their resilience and reduce the impacts of water scarcity. For example, land managers could consider investing in equipment and infrastructure to improve water-use efficiency such as an irrigation lagoon.

Those collecting water from the same source are urged to work together with neighbours and stagger abstractions to make best use of available water.

Find further advice and support on the water scarcity page.

Water scarcity

The National Water Scarcity Plan explains how water resources will be managed prior to and during periods of prolonged dry weather. This is to ensure the correct balance is struck between protecting the environment and providing resource for human and economic activity.

During water scarcity conditions, SEPA publish a weekly report categorising the water situation across Scotland through a five-tiered approach.

Find out more about Scotland's National Water Scarcity Plan.