In 2022, the east of Scotland experienced the driest January in over 80 years, and groundwater levels were the lowest they have been since records began in 2009.

In August, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) issued a significant water scarcity alert in mid and north Fife, and in parts of the Scottish Borders. Farmers were banned from taking water from the River Eden in Fife after it fell to the second-lowest level ever recorded.

The situation is not new. In 2018, large areas of Scotland experienced significant water scarcity between July and September. This resulted in over 500 private water supplies running dry nationwide.

However, many do not seem to be aware of the issue. A survey conducted in 2021 found that 37% of respondents felt that drought was unlikely to ever be a problem for Scotland.

For World Water Day and World Meteorological Day, we look into studies commissioned by ClimateXChange between 2019 and 2022 that suggest potential impacts of drought in Scotland and options for preventive measures.

Drought frequency

Climate scenarios suggest that drought risk, mainly in the east of Scotland, is likely to increase in coming years. Low flow in Scottish rivers currently happens once every 40 years, but by the 2050s these events could be as common as every 9 years.

Even though wetter winters are also expected, the extra rain will not make up for the lower precipitation in future summers, according to research.

This will have a negative impact on agriculture and forestry, and may limit some land use options unless irrigation supply is increased, or other forms of adaptation are implemented.


Research shows that as drought conditions worsen, agricultural land is likely to become less productive when soils are dry. This means that Scottish potatoes and other vegetables will require significantly more irrigation water during the summer.

Water catchments could be used to collect rainfall water to irrigate potatoes and horticulture, especially in Tayside and Fife. However, scientists warn that if irrigation needs to be extended to cereals, then catchments in the east of Scotland might not collect enough water.

They recommend that water supply systems should become more resilient to prevent water shortage as droughts become more severe and occur more frequently. Additionally, it is worth considering shifts in cropping systems and to crops that require less water.


Even though warmer weather may improve forest development, researchers found that those gains can be rapidly counteracted by losses due to drought.

Forest productivity and timber quality are expected to be affected by severe droughts, especially in east, central and south Scotland. And those severe droughts can heavily impact trees that are common in Scotland, including national tree Scots pine, Douglas fir, and Sitka spruce, one of the most important tree species in the British forest.

Decreased forest productivity leads to fewer or smaller trees, which will remove less carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than they currently do, so this scenario could worsen climate change.

To better understand the risk of large-scale drought impacts, researchers can study tree annual growth by looking at their rings and monitor drought through satellite images and indices.

SEPA’s actions

Measures are already being taken to tackle drought in Scotland. SEPA monitors water levels closely and coordinates steps to manage water resources in line with Scotland’s National Water Scarcity Plan.

It also engages with agriculture and other sectors that rely on water all year round to help them build resilience to water scarcity.

For information on drought in Scotland, please visit SEPA’s website for a regular water scarcity report between May and September each year.

Featured projects

Water scarcity, climate change and land use options

Drought risk in Scottish forests

The land capability for agriculture: building a tool to enable climate change assessments

Private water supplies in a changing climate: insights from 2018

Public awareness of climate risks and opportunities in Scotland

Related links

SEPA information on water scarcity