Water treatment Membranes Europe

Flanders explores nonlinear water routes to circularity

Thursday, 6 May 2021

Belgium water utility De Watergroep is putting Circular Economy plans into action, including exploring the potential for aquifer storage and recovery (ASR).

The need for flexible water systems

Bordering the Netherlands, the Flemish region of Belgium is taking the circular economy seriously.

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

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.

“When talking about the circular economy, many people think on the micro-level,” says Han Vervaeren, programme manager of Belgium water utility, De Watergroep, which provides water to 3.2 million customers. “But now we see the need for impact on a regional and even beyond to international level.”

Circular economy ambitions, coupled with creating resilience against the impacts of climate change, are accelerating the utility to “explore all nonlinear water routes”, adds Vervaeren.

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

Increasing the water supply buffer

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.

“Aquifer storage and recovery is a solid concept. It's about increasing the buffer capacity and taking water in the winter that can be used in the summer.”

The company has been exploring the potential to store surplus water up to 300 meters 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,” adds 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.

Connecting six “Living labs”

A partnership with Belgian wastewater company, Aquafin, is part of the wider EU Horizon 2020 B-WaterSmart project.

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?” asks 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?”

“We have to think of these projects holistically: you cannot just focus on the technical aspects.”

The programme manager adds: “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?”

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.

“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,” says Geertje Pronk, scientific researcher at KWR Water Research Institute, one of project’s 36 partners.

Pronk says 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.”

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