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Emerging water futures


The drought of 2018 raised the profile of droughts in Scotland, with broad coverage of impacts. Future occurrence and magnitude of droughts are predicted to increase, with periods previously only occurring once every 40 years happening once every 20 years by 2050. Recent work by NatureScot found increases in extreme droughts across Scotland with the highest likelihood in eastern Scotland including Grampian and Caithness. However, these spatial patterns do not always map to surface water and groundwater vulnerabilities.

Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is a biological emerging contaminant (EC) with the potential to have significant consequences. ECs, such as pharmaceuticals, personal care products (PPCPs) and microplastics have been detected in surface and ground waters, sewage effluent and at trace concentrations in drinking waters and river sediment. There are data gaps in baseline information on pharmaceuticals in the water environment in Scotland in 18 local authority areas and a bias towards effluents. ECs have the potential to cause both ecotoxicological effects and impacts on human health, therefore their prevalence is of particular concern concerning drinking water sources. Microplastics threaten biodiversity, ecosystem services and potentially human health, yet minimal data pertain to their detection in Scottish freshwaters.

While the impacts of future changes on water quality in Scotland represent a major knowledge gap, water quality modelling frequently suffers from a lack of available data at a high-enough spatial and temporal resolution as well as high uncertainty. Therefore, novel monitoring and modelling approaches are urgently needed to address these challenges. Monthly data typically available from national regulatory water quality monitoring is at risk of underestimating true pollutant concentrations and loads, making it difficult to inform cost-effective targeting of pollution mitigation measures. Wide deployment of high-temporal resolution monitoring instruments continues to be hindered by high cost and there is an urgent need for innovative techniques for cheaper, reliable high-resolution field assessment to understand pollutant sources, pathways, and responses to mitigation measures.

While modelling facilitates an understanding of both current drivers and future risks to the water environment, the application of models to AMR is rare and hindered by a lack of data, limited mechanistic understanding and a failure to consider the role of environmental factors on transmission. The temporal and spatial dynamics of Antibiotic resistance genes (ARGs) in catchment systems is likely to be important in influencing risk levels across seasons and scales but is not well represented in models to date. Further, while new ECs appear every year, for many we do not have sufficient monitoring data or knowledge to characterise their behaviour in the environment.

The key drivers of this research are the needs of policymakers and managers to:

  • Have tools to predict where and when drought may occur in Scotland.
  • Understand where vulnerabilities to drought lie in our environment, economy and society.
  • Understand future changes in water quality in Scottish catchments; what drivers of change are and how this impacts ecosystem services and water users.
  • Improve and monitor rural drinking water quality and increase awareness of potential health risks from their water supplies.


  • Water scarcity and drought - what are the risks and vulnerabilities within Scotland, and how do we build resilience?
  • Water quality in the environment – what are the emerging and future risks and how can we mitigate these?
  • How do we continue to improve drinking water quality?


This project is integrating model-based assessment of future risks to water quality and quantity under a range of scenarios, with new empirical water quality data and socio-economic risk assessment for drinking water supplies.


Understanding the vulnerabilities of Scotland’s water resources to drought

We review grey and academic literature, catchment-level studies of changes in flow paths and groundwater storage during the 2018 drought and how threshold thinking could improve the assessment of sectoral vulnerabilities and adaptive strategies for different stakeholders. For drought-impacted sectors like agriculture, we review recent research on a multi-level framework for agricultural drought adaptation and surface and groundwater drought studies. We then collate climate data from UK and international sources and review available modelling approaches to drought risk and vulnerabilities.

Informed by the insights of this review, we are building a free and open-source integrated drought risk modelling approach for meteorological, soil, and hydrological drought based on existing datasets and open-source models at a national scale, depending on the availability of relevant national datasets. We are also building a trans-disciplinary probabilistic vulnerability model and a Decision Support Tool based on Bayesian Belief Networks and focussed on selected case studies, bringing together diverse data and stakeholder perspectives.


Developing a baseline understanding of emerging contaminants in Scotland’s freshwaters

We are undertaking flow-integrated spatiotemporal sampling in contrasting catchments and national-scale spatially distributed sampling to understand relationships between ECs and environmental drivers. We consider:  

  • ARGs and co-selector
  • PPCPs  
  • Endocrine disrupters, pesticides
  • Microplastics/phthalates
  • Perfluoroalkyl and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAs)
  • Human and animal pathogens, including viruses

This activity fills key data gaps by identifying and mapping key ECs in freshwaters. This project links to work done by the Flows of Antimicrobial resistance and pathogens through environment to food chain project on antibiotic and ARG quantification methods in soils, manures and crops and some shared aspects of Bayesian Belief Network modelling, and the Understanding the dynamics of antimicrobial resistance genes (ARGs) flux in the soil, animals and humans in different fertilisation practices for grasslands project on quantifying antibiotics in soil samples.


Understanding the emergent and future risks to water quality in the environment

Monitoring Approaches

We are developing and testing novel near-real-time monitoring approaches using in-situ sensors to aid the understanding of current and future water quality in terms of nutrients and ECs and inform adaptive management in Scotland. The application of UV-vis/Raman sensors for monitoring emerging contaminants (pesticides/pharmaceutical) will be investigated, using colorimetric approaches and nanoparticles. UV-Vis spectroscopic “fingerprinting” will be explored to establish typical natural waters conditions and detect pollution anomalies. Fluorescence and UV-Vis spectroscopy is being applied to a) assess the effect of peatland restoration on dissolved organic matter quality and quantity by comparison of degraded and restored peatland sites (linked to the CentrePeat project) b) understand sources of stream organic carbon (linked to the Achieving Multi-purpose Nature-based Solutions project).


Modelling Approaches

We are using a BBN to simulate the fate and risks of future water quality from ECs. The BBN can represent relationships in a causal model structure, incorporate uncertainty and variability using stochastic modelling and apply sensitivity analysis for model validation. Non-biophysical variables can be included, thus building a holistic trans-disciplinary system-based approach to quantitative risk assessment.


Increasing the resilience and quality of drinking water

We are further understanding the risks, impacts, and responses that arise from growing uncertainty and variability in drinking water supplies and quality. We are providing recommendations to support rural supply planning, assess the risks to drinking water through the development of novel tests and engage rural communities to enhance the resilience of these supplies. Rural drinking water is one area of supply that is significantly impacted by the above threats. Rural private water companies are an appropriate case study for examining: the socio-economic factors that amplify and mitigate vulnerability to water shortages and water quality issues, attitudes and perceptions of risk associated with water supplies, and the feasibility of self-monitoring to support a wider self-supply management model. This activity contributes to the evidence base supporting resilience of rural communities in The Benefits of a Rural Green Recovery: Pinpointing Opportunities, Assets and Support Needs project by highlighting roles of housing security and connectivity as factors influencing community resilience to water-related climate impacts.

Changes made to regulations have introduced new obligations for monitoring somatic coliphages in water sources and treatment processes. Existing methods for testing are time-consuming. We are exploring more rapid molecular-based methods, such as RT-qPCR quantification and metagenomic sequencing.

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