New study on ‘the socio-economic importance of water’ shows:

  • ‘Water stress’ remains worryingly high despite favourable evolution of water consumption and water efficiency of the business community
  • 15 most water-intensive sectors account for 1/3 of the gross added value and 1 out of 5 jobs in Flanders

In 2013, The Flanders Knowledge Center Water (Vlakwa/VITO) published its first study into the socio-economic importance of water in Flanders. Today Vlakwa, in collaboration with VITO, presents an updated version based on the most recent data from the Flemish Environment Agency (VMM), the National bank of Belgium and others.

Some conclusions:

Flemish employment  increasingly dependent on water availability

Direct employment in the water-intensive sectors (the 15 most water-using sectors in Flanders) amounts to 22.3 %. In the 2013 analysis, this percentage was 16.7 % - good for a 34 % increase! 1 in 5 Flemish people are working in a water-intensive sector.

The share of the water-intensive sectors in the gross added value of the Flemish economy amounts to 33 % or 73 billion euros (2016).

The water-intensive sectors are to a large extent situated within the manufacturing industry, to which an important indirect employment is also linked. Guaranteed water supply and availability at an internationally competitive price is of crucial strategic importance.

The cost as a result of not having sufficient water available is already being put into focus. The importance of a robust water system for all water users (water-bound transport, energy, industry, agriculture, nature …) is underlined (see also vision note 2050 of the Flemish Government).

The level of water stress must go down

The ‘Water stress level’ is an indicator used by the United Nations in the follow-up of the Sustainable Development Goals. This indicator shows the ratio between the total amount of freshwater used and the total amount of renewable freshwater resources available. Countries of regions begin to show water stress when this indicator exceeds 25 %. For Belgium this indicator is 56 %. This proves that great efforts are still needed to make the water system robust and sustainable.

Water use and water efficiency are evolving favourably

In the period 2010 to 2016, water use within the Flemish economy fell by more than one billion cubic metres, mainly as a result of a decrease in the use of cooling water. This increased the water efficiency considerably. Water efficiency is a new indicator (launched by the United Nations) that expresses the economic value added per unit of water in US dollars per cubic metre ($/m3).

In 2010, the Flemish economy used 3.5 billion m3 of water (see socio-economic importance of water 2013) and created a gross added value of 187.820 million euros. The water efficiency in 2010 was 53 EUR/m3 or 60 $/m3.

In 2016, the Flemish economy used 2.5 billion m3 water and created a gross added value of 222.048 million euros. The water efficiency was thus 89 EUR/m3 or 100 $/m3.

The figures show a good improvement of the Flemish business world with a significant decrease in use and a strongly increased water efficiency.

Permanent availability of qualitative water sources is essential

The most important water users (excluding cooling water) and thus most water-dependent sectors are chemistry, agriculture and a shared third place the energy sector, metal industry, the sector of cokes and refinery products and the food sector.

As far as agriculture is concerned, rainwater falling on the fields and absorbed by the crops was not taken into account in this analysis. If we did, the water dependency for agriculture would be even greater. (The normal water demand for agricultural crops is about 500l/m2. With an agricultural area of 600.000 ha in Flanders, there would therefore be an additional demand of about 3 billion m3).

The main consumers of groundwater are agriculture, food and beverage industry, accounting for 63 % of the total groundwater consumption.

The main consumers of drinking water are the chemical sector, the sector of coke and refinery products, wholesale trade and the food sector – together accounting for 45 % of the drinking water consumption within sectors.

Cooling processes form a challenge

Water usage is the sum of cooling water and used water. The main users of cooling water in Flanders are: the energy sector, the chemical industry, the sector of coke and refinery products, followed by the food sector, together accounting for 99.6 % of the cooling water use. For these sectors, a potential challenge will arise in the future. As the summer of 2017 and 2018 demonstrated, the reliability of cooling water based installations decreases with prolonged drought. When the water temperature of surface water becomes too high, the government imposes restrictions on the quantity of cooling water that can be discharged, which has a direct impact on the production capacity and often also on the company turnover.

Integration of water and mobility challenges

The shipping industry does not extract large quantities of water, but this sector nevertheless has a large water demand. When ships pass ship locks, an important amount of water is moved from the upward to the downstream canal pounds, resulting in a drop in the water level in the upward canal building. In the case of inadequate water supply upstream, as has been established this summer, there are important challenges for optimizing shipping and one is sometimes forced to curb the water extraction of other water users.

The total water cost and water sensitivity of the sectors

The total water costs (for delivery and purification) for the companies amounted to 761 million euros in 2016. The sectors that pay the largest water bill in absolute terms are, in order of importance, chemistry, energy, food and coke, accounting for 293 million euros / year or 40 % of the total annual joint water bill.

The sectors that feel the greatest increase in water prices (these are sectors with high water cost on the gross added value and a low gross value added on operating revenues) include the food, beverage, coke, chemical and paper sector.


Dirk Van der Stede (CEO Vlakwa): “The figures show the positive effects of the efforts of industry and agriculture. Forward-looking, more is needed to effectively achieve a robust water system. How this ambition is translated into concrete objectives and measures, however, is still not entirely clear. Today, with acute problems (flooding, scarcity, etc.) from a particular viewpoint, the formulation of remedial measures is quickly made. And this without adequately exploring the wide range of solutions and long-term synergies (including mobility, energy, health …) that can result in a win-win on several levels, greater support and thus cost and time savings when executing.”

Interactive tool for customised analyses

The results of the study on the socio-economic importance of water in Flanders were elaborated through an interactive tool which allows users to make analyses for a specific sector or province: