Exploring nonlinear water routes to circularity in Flanders

Known for its castles and red ale, Flanders has been diligently working away on plans to become known as a European region in another area: the circular economy. Bordering the Netherlands, the Flemish region of Belgium is taking the circular economy seriously.

In its ‘Vision 2050’ strategy, the government listed seven priority areas, including the Circular Economic, Smart Living and Industry 4.0. By closing cycles and reusing natural resources where possible, “smart material cycles” can flourish in Flanders and beyond, it said.

Creating water resilience
Belgium water utility De Watergroep is putting some of the plans into action. Founded in 1913, the organisation provides water to 3.2 million customers.

Han Vervaeren, Programme Manager at De Watergroep

Circular economy ambitions, coupled with creating resilience against the impacts of climate change, are accelerating the utility to “explore all nonlinear water routes”, said Han Vervaeren, programme manager, De Watergroep.

“In the summer, the water levels drop but the concentrations of salt solids increase,” he said. “We need a really flexible system.”

In total, De Watergroep operates 68 groundwater and five surface water treatment plants. One notable reference is an aquifer storage and recovery (ASR) project at the De Blankaart water production centre in Diksmuide.

The company has been exploring the potential to store surplus water up to 300 metres underground in the winter, ready to pump it up again in the event of prolonged drought in the summer. Simply put: increasing the water supply buffer.

“Aquifer storage and recovery is a solid concept,” added Vervaeren. “It’s about increasing the buffer capacity and taking water in the winter that can be used in the summer when there are shortages.”

However, after initial testing, it was decided that ASR was not well suited to the Diksmuide region due to a “very low” infiltration capacity.

“Together with geologists, we estimated that ASR could be potentially good, but in the end, we see that the storage and infiltration capacity were much too low so that it’s never economically viable to feed in the water there.”

Scouting other locations to demonstrate ASR, the company is investigating another important and circular water reuse project.

Two scenarios for water reuse
A partnership with Belgian wastewater company, Aquafin, is part of the wider EU Horizon 2020 B-WaterSmart project (grant ID: 869171).

Aquafin and De Watergroep will develop a pilot system to evaluate connecting treated wastewater with two scenarios: the first connection towards the production facility’s intake point and the second connected further downstream.

“We’re exploring if it’s possible to make this connection, and what would be the water quality?” asked Vervaeren. “Does this potentially introduce new problems related to safety but also, if you use that water, can it still be used for something else?”

The programme manager added, “B-WaterSmart will give us insight into which water streams are available. Where are they originating from? What is now their main purpose or destination, and is this the most optimal way or route? And can we think about other routes?”

Geertje Pronk, Scientific Researcher at KWR Water Research Institute

Connecting six “Living labs”
B-WaterSmart focuses on systemic innovation, from city to regional scale, in six living labs: Alicante (Spain), Bodø (Norway), Flanders (Belgium), Lisbon (Portugal), East Frisia (Germany) and Venice (Italy). These cases are complementary on scale, the type of water used, sectors and water-related challenges.

One of the project ambitions is to connect partners and help unlock wider, circular activities, as demonstrated with the De Watergroep and Aquafin collaboration.

“What excites me about B-WaterSmart is the partners’ willingness to look beyond their production systems to a wider regional level,” said Geertje Pronk, scientific researcher at KWR Water Research Institute, one of the project’s 36 partners.

“This is still an industry challenge,” she added. “The project is encouraging partners to go beyond the single pilot, or technical solutions project, to see how that fits together and how you can make the next step.

We have to think of these projects holistically: you cannot just focus on the technical aspects but also need to address the water quality, safety, stakeholders, regulation and governance and of course also the business models.”

A sense of urgency
Pronk said the droughts experienced in the Netherlands and Flanders are prompting action.

“There’s a sense of urgency to ensure water supplies are robust and sustainable for the future,” she said. “There’s also more willingness to explore alternative water sources and look into solutions to develop more smart water systems.”

Flanders may be a small region on the European map but its ambitions on circularity, driven by the Vision 2050 strategy, remain large and could help to shape wider international efforts.

“When talking about the circular economy, many people think on the micro-level,” said Vervaeren. “But now we see the need for impact on a regional and even beyond to international level. B-WaterSmart and the wider EU projects could help to organise trans-border agreements on water availability and quality.”