Custodians of the water of life - Ian Smith

With the copious rain that greeted delegates as they arrived for the COP26 Climate Change Summit, you might be forgiven for thinking that water is one thing Scotland doesn’t need to worry too much about.

Ian Smith, Head of Corporate Relations, Diageo Scotland
Ian Smith, Head of Corporate Relations, Diageo Scotland

But recent flooding events, from Glasgow to the Scottish Borders, follow one of the driest summers on record, with some reservoirs at their lowest levels for 160 years.

Extreme weather linked to climate change, including drought and floods, are only likely to intensify around the world. Caring for our water resources has never mattered more for Scotland. And it has never mattered more for Scotland’s pre-eminent global industry, Scotch Whisky.

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A clue to water’s importance to the Scotch Whisky industry is in its name - Uisge Beatha, or ‘water of life’. You cannot make whisky without water and you cannot make whisky to the quality of Scotch without it being fresh, clean and plentiful.

The River Spey near Cardhu distillery.

We have been truly privileged as a country and an industry to enjoy one of the most abundant and pristine water resources in the world. But with the dual climate and nature crisis making itself felt here in Scotland, as it is around the world, responsibility rests on the Scotch whisky industry to manage the natural resources it uses ever more carefully.

Nowhere is this more so the case than in Speyside, the beating heartland of the industry, home to around half of all malt whisky production along the banks of the River Spey. In the summer of 2018, production at some sites in the region was impacted because of low water levels.

As we face up to these challenges, we are fortunate to have high-quality environmental expertise and partners to work with. The Alliance for Water Stewardship (AWS) is one such organisation. Based here in Scotland, AWS is guiding global efforts on water sustainability.

A global membership organisation including businesses, NGOs and the public sector, AWS administers the International Water Stewardship Standard (AWS Standard) that drives, recognises and rewards good water stewardship performance.

Diageo completed a £550,000 weir and fish pass near Dufftown to help boost the sustainability of salmon and trout stocks in Moray.

The AWS Standard is acknowledged around the world as the benchmark for responsible water use. It is therefore a great source of pride for Diageo’s Scotch whisky business that 11 of our distilleries in the Spey catchment area were awarded the AWS Standard in the week before COP26.

This group of distilleries, including world famous whisky names such as Cardhu, Cragganmore and Mortlach, are the first distilleries in the world to achieve the AWS certification.

Careful stewardship of water resources in Speyside, and in every part of Scotland, is not just about ensuring we have the water we need to make our whiskies. It is about preserving the environment for the local community and for the plant and animal life that depends on healthy hydrology.

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That’s why Diageo has invested £550,000 to build a new weir and fish-pass on the River Dullan – a key tributary of the Spey – in collaboration with the Spey Fishery Board to help spawning trout and salmon as they journey up and down stream.

The focus on wider ecology and biodiversity is also the driver in a partnership between Johnnie Walker – which uses many Speyside single malts in its famous blends – with RSPB Scotland to restore an area of severely degraded peatland in the Cairngorms National Park.

Peatlands have a crucial role to play in local hydrology, with healthy peatlands locking in carbon and soaking up water, while degrading peatlands release carbon in the environment as they are washed away into local water courses through erosion.

With careful stewardship of our natural resources, and with the partnership of organisations such as AWS and others, we believe Scotland can continue to enjoy producing Scotch whisky for many centuries to come, whatever the weather.

Ian Smith, Head of Corporate Relations, Diageo Scotland



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