Flanders has been plagued by drought for the fourth year in a row. What has been known for some time is now reaching a wider audience: Flanders is struggling with a serious water shortage. A thorough rethink of our water system with the aid of technological innovation and a new approach will be necessary. If not, there is a threat of disruptive damage to our economy. The Flemish government is responding to this and recently announced the ‘Blue Deal’. VITO can make an important contribution to this with its water-related tools and innovation projects, and its specific knowledge around water.

“Water and climate are inextricably linked,” explains Inge Genné, programme manager for Water at VITO. “Climate change is leading to greater drought for us, and in the long term, rising sea levels will also be a concern. On the other hand, water plays a major role in resolving the consequences of climate change, such as the need for cooling and extra water buffers to combat long-term drought. Climate and water form a cohesive system, known as the ‘water-climate nexus’.”

Flexible and resilient

Flanders had already indicated its ambition to achieve a ‘(climate-)robust water system’. “Robust does mean strong and shock-resistant here, but it certainly mustn't be rigid. Rather, resilience and flexibility will be crucial,” emphasises Inge Genné. “In the future, our water system will need to be able to handle changing circumstances such as extreme drought, or an intensive period of rain. Every company using water in its processes will need to be able to adapt, and our cities and regions also need to remain liveable in the new reality. We're in need of a flexible water system that makes maximum use of the available water for all possible applications and uses.”

Data to information

“Intelligent management systems for mapping out both the quality and quantity of water in detail and in real time will offer the ability to handle our water supplies better and more flexibly,” says Piet Seuntjens, innovation manager at VITO.  In terms of technology, this is why VITO is focusing on data-to-information. This is where water knowledge is linked to data management and we are developing software tools for authorities and businesses to enable smart control.

“We aim to use artificial intelligence and machine learning to produce very precise and practical information, including about water drainage. One of the problems we're struggling with in Flanders is the fact that our area is largely designed to drain water quickly. Both in times of drought and water scarcity and in times of flooding, we need to be able to make targeted decisions about actions (such as pumping up water from waterways, filling and emptying buffers, or reusing water) based on fast and accurate data on the quality and quantity of the water.

 “With Internet of Water Flanders, we're already focusing on machine learning and artificial intelligence today, in order to process information on water quality parameters in real time. This information can be used to address the issues of surface water discharges and the salinization (a consequence of drought) at our polders and harbour areas.”


Collaboration will be crucial to our future water system, in the water world and in all parts of our society. “Good collaboration between Flemish water operators will lay the foundations for the necessary transition. VITO is collaborating with the Flanders Environment Agency (VMM), The Water Group, Aquafin and The Flemish Waterways and is bringing in its transition team to develop a systematic approach along with VLAKWA.

 “Water has many users, each with their own social and economic interests. But that doesn't have to turn it into a competitive battle,” argues Inge Genné. “The same drop of water can be reused many times. But for that, we'll need to make our water usage smarter and encourage reuse. And that can only happen if users get to know one another better and discover each other's water needs. That's how we can set up collaborations and even bring about some win-win situations.”

Giving companies autonomy

“If you study the water challenges in our industry, it's clear that circular water usage needs maximum development. That's how you can separate the limited availability of water from economic growth,” Inge Genné points out. “But a good overview of a company's water usage demands a thorough water audit to map out everything that requires and consumes water.” VITO is taking this ‘the more you show, the more you know’ concept a step further by designing water dashboards, which give companies a high degree of autonomy in the management of their own water. Known as ‘Water Management 4.0’, we are reviewing how smart process control can respond to the changing availability of water sources. Future scenarios and the accompanying cost-benefit analyses need to take account of climate change and the associated impact on water availability, as well as the consequences for other users of the water system. VITO is working on a Water Barometer Tool to give companies an insight into the risks of drought.

Liveable cities

Steps must also be taken for the liveability of our cities, she emphasises. “Both grey, ‘engineered’ solutions and nature-based measures can arm us against climate change.

When developing new sites or for renovation projects, it is crucial to be actively focusing on optimal, partly decentral water management right from the design phase.  In order to meet the demands from the drinking water sector and the project developers, VITO has developed the Water Architect Tool. This tool allows to design or calculate scenarios with buffering solutions and the use of alternative water sources such as rain or grey water. The prototype for the tool is currently being demonstrated on the Hertogensite in Leuven .

The old contrast between “nature or economy” is outdated. Returning reclaimed marshland to nature can provide a natural water buffer, for example. At the same time, this creates more space for recreation, which then provides a new economic stimulus. These natural ecosystem services, as they are known, have a wide reach. For example, depaving and planting trees in the cities causes more rainwater to seep into the soil, reduces the formation of heat islands, improves the air quality and causes the breakdown of CO2. This makes life in the cities more pleasant. VITO’s Nature Value Explorer tool (www.natuurwaardeverkenner.be) offers town planners, architects and policy officers a quick and handy overview of the potential of interventions.”

Water and agriculture

It goes without saying that our agriculture is also suffering from the dry-outs caused by climate change. Inge Genné: “VITO is using satellite imagery to monitor how much water every crop needs and when would be the best time for irrigation. VITO is launching the Irrigation 2.0 tool, which also maps out alternative sources of water close to agricultural firms. This allows purified wastewater from wastewater treatment plants or from industrial water users (with controlled quality parameters) – water that would normally be discharged – to be reused for certain crops.

Model region

“You can see that there are many solutions to the major water challenges. Flanders needs to combine its know-how to take on the challenge. By focusing on cross-sectoral water-climate solutions, we can take this global too. That's how we can evolve from a water-scarce region into a model region for efficient use of water,” concludes Inge Genné.

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