Interview: New Scotland, Hydro Nation Chair

Andrew Tyler Describes Hydro Nation Chair Ambitions, Looks Forward to COP26

4 May 2021 by The Water Diplomat
STIRLING, United Kingdom

Andrew Tyler, Stirling University


Professor Andrew Tyler is a man with a water mission. As a newly appointed academic Chair, part of the Scotland Hydro Nation initiative, Andrew will bring together distinct water communities for a holistic approach to identifying, managing and addressing challenges across the country's water environment, maximising economic growth opportunities, and developing international opportunities and engagement.

David Duncan from The water Diplomat is in conversation with Professor Tyler.


David Duncan: What is the philosophy and meaning of a hydro nation?

Andrew Tyler: A hydro nation, in its broadest sense, is one that manages its water sustainably to the best of its advantage. Scotland has a real heritage as a hydro nation. If you go back to Victorian times, Scotland managed its water to help support the eradication of cholera in its urban environments - Glasgow in particular. Since the 20th century, it's been using water as a sustainable source of energy. And more recently, it's been key to exports, such as whisky and salmon. But as we go forward, climate change presents a real challenge because it's through water that we feel the effects of climate change.

We can use our water and manage it much more effectively to promote the natural environment by holding back water in our wetlands, in our peatlands, for example, where we can then promote carbon sequestration. That's fundamental in terms of delivering on net zero, but also to promote biodiversity. Equally, we can extract energy from water, be that kinetic energy, thermal energy, for example, which can then help promote that green recovery.

David Duncan: A new development in the Hydro Nation program is the creation of the Hydro Nation Chair here at Stirling University. Tell us a little bit about the institution.

Andrew Tyler: Stirling is a beautiful campus. It's one of the things that drew me here many years ago. It's situated very much at the heart of Scotland - right on the edge of the Highlands, on the River Forth catchment. It's also Braveheart country. We have a monument just on the edge of the campus which pays tribute to William Wallace. It's an area steeped in history.

The university itself, which is relatively small, has 14,000 students and a staff capacity of 1,500, but a rather large alumni of 88,000 around the world across about 170 countries.

David Duncan: Tell us more about your own areas of research.

Andrew Tyler: When I was head of department in biological and environmental sciences, our research was at the interface between environment, ecosystems and society. It was our department that identified the link between neonicotinoids in pesticides and bumble bee decline, and that resulted in a Europe-wide ban on neonicotinoids as a pesticide. We have also had a field station in Gabon for as long as the university has been in existence, building up a very rich time series of data to highlight the impact of climate change on tropical forests. We've also been focusing our research on resolving the conflicts between wildlife and human society.

And, with work in the Arctic, really understanding the impact of climate change and the irreversible change in soils and vegetation, particularly in tundra, where the melting of tundra soils is shifting vegetation species to more woody above-ground species.

Plastics are another area of real concern. We have a group pioneering in plastics, and microplastics in particular. They are looking at how plastics can be a conduit or vector for pathogens over long distances. They're also looking at how plastics block up drainage, particularly in developing countries.

My group has been pioneering the use of satellite-based Earth observation to monitor water quality at the global scale. There are over 100 million lakes globally, and we probably know something about a tiny fraction of those lakes. Here we have a global ecosystem that we're all fundamentally dependent on that we actually don't know much about.

David Duncan: And you're involved in something closer to Stirling itself. Tell us about the City Deal.

Andrew Tyler: Going back to the time when I was head of department, I became acutely aware of some of the real challenges in terms of biodiversity crisis and the climate emergency. I was very aware that we couldn't do this by any single sector alone. We really had to bring together the sectors across regulation and policy, across the industry, across communities to work together. Historically, the environment has often been used to hold back economic development. But here we have an opportunity to use the environment sustainably, but also to promote green technologies and the green recovery. And we can only do that by bringing the environment to the heart of decision making, so that people make more sustainable choices in the way businesses, companies, industries grow and develop.

David Duncan: The new Hydro Nation Chair is described as a catalyst for academic research. Tell us about the purposes of the Chair.

Andrew Tyler: The the new Hydro Nation Chair is very much about breaking down silos to bring communities, industry, policy, regulation together to tackle environment challenges. Water is an excellent example of why we need to do this. You don't need me to tell you that water flows through the environment as a continuum. And yet the way we have studied the environment, the way we manage the environment, is very compartmentalized. If we look at academic institutions, they're very siloed, perhaps biased by their specific areas of expertise or geography. The policy and regulatory environment has been very much dominated by the Water Framework Directive or the Marine Strategy Framework Directive or the Bathing Waters Directive. And if we look at different industry sectors, they're also siloed because of their own economic priorities. We have a whole series of siloed organisations looking at their specific parts of the environment and not thinking about water as that continuum.

That's where the chair comes in as a disruptor to make us all think about the downstream consequences or the upstream influences that we can use to better manage that water environment. If we take Scotland in particular, it represents a third of the UK's landmass, and [water utility] Scottish Water represents and manages the largest proportion of of the UK landmass, with only eight percent of the UK's population. Scottish Water has to manage water for everything from remote island communities all the way through to industrial rich heartlands. That's very challenging for any organisation in the face of climate change, but equally offers a huge number of opportunities. In light of this, Scottish Water recently published its 25-year plan and very much at the heart of that is the need to go beyond net zero - deliver service excellence to its customers, but also good value to its customers, as well as providing financial sustainability.

This plan was co-created with both customers and stakeholders, and the Hydro Nation Chair is a key part of that, funded by Scottish Water in partnership with the Scottish Funding Council. Part of the Chair is a series of mission-led fellowships, which we'll soon be announcing, to help bring the Scottish community together. Behind that also is going to be a new Hydro Nation Crucible, a new series of workshops, to bring different entities together with university departments and provide pump-priming funding to take forward initiatives which can lead to more substantive, high-value grant applications. This will enable the Scottish community to start delivering those solutions at scale and at pace for Scotland and then have the opportunity to export those internationally.

David Duncan: There are other countries such as Singapore, the Netherlands, Israel, others, that position themselves as global leaders in different aspects of the world's water challenges. What is it that sets Scotland apart as the world's first self-declared hydro nation?

Andrew Tyler: I think it comes down to the way Scotland is perceived internationally. When everyone thinks of Scotland, they think of the glens, the lochs, the mountains, which demonstrates a huge variation in the natural environment as well as the built environment. There are significant challenges in managing that, but equally, that vision of the lochs and the glens is key to Scotland's exports. Managing its water, maintaining high quality water and sanitation is fundamental to that continued growth. So, it's really important for Scotland to ensure that it's resilient against climate change, but also to continue to grow industry as well in a sustainable way and promote green technologies.

David Duncan: Scotland will, of course, act as the geographical host of COP26 later this year. This is an opportunity for Scotland to promote that progressive thinking and excellence around water challenges, is it not?

Andrew Tyler: That's right. And we're really hoping to showcase a lot of that technology. As part of Scotland's International Environment Centre, the first phase of that is building a digital twin of the Firth of Forth catchment. This is supporting a living laboratory, so that we really understand how water is flowing through that landscape, the quality of the water and the quantity of water, at any time or any location within it. It's unprecedented. And we're doing that by bringing together satellite capability to monitor water quality and quantity from space to give us that spatial continuum of water - how much water is in soil, in the river, in the lochs and the estuary, and the quality of the water as well. We will augment this with sensors in the landscape. From space, we can measure optically active constituents such as chlorophyll, the amount of sediment, color, dissolved organic matter. But clearly, water quality is also dependent on a whole range of other parameters, nutrients and so on, that we need sensors to measure. We'll then use A.I. capability to predict what's happening between sensors or between satellite overpasses.

And we'll build in some hydrodynamic modeling, so that we can model what-if scenarios as well. What if we don't do anything? What are the consequences of climate change or what are the consequences of a change in land use or what type of interventions do we need, and what are the downstream consequences of those interventions.

We've been working closely with British Telecom on this, who's helping to bring that communications capability, linking up sensors and exploiting 5G capability as well as IoT technologies. We're hoping to bring this to COP to demonstrate this world-leading capability through an immersive experience.

David Duncan: You've just been appointed as the Hydro Nation chair for an initial six years. What are some of the headlines that we should be looking out for during this period?

Andrew Tyler: This is a pioneering, really exciting opportunity for Scotland. There's no precedent. But one thing's for sure, we have until the end of this decade to make a very real difference. The ambitions behind the Hydro Nation are to enhance the natural environment by managing water much more effectively, promoting peatlands, wetlands and restoration, for example, to haul back carbon, promote biodiversity, to deliver and go beyond net zero, to unpack that supply chain within the water industry, demonstrate best practice in how we reduce carbon in that sector and also promote the opportunities in that circular economy. Part of this has to be about growing new industry, new businesses and new jobs as well, which is fundamental for Scotland's prosperity. By working in partnership across Scotland, we have a really exciting research and innovation opportunity and an opportunity to export the best of Scotland internationally as well. I am really honoured to have this position, to take this initiative forward and to demonstrate that Scotland is a leading hydro nation.

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