‘The spade must be put in the ground’, but not ill-considered – by introducing balanced water solutions, Flanders aims to evolve, in order to become a model region for water management. As part of the Blue Deal, VITO coordinates the ambitious Flanders WaterProof project, the aim of which is to investigate drought mitigation through smart buffering in the form of three large-scale demonstration projects. 

The systematic vision behind the project transcends the local nature of the three areas to be used for demonstration: the gained innovative or revised knowledge and experiences obtained from this project will be applied on a Flanders-wide scale in the future. This will be the start of a ‘water redistribution project’ that will make our region waterproof.

Three demo areas for resilient water supply systems

In the coming years, specific actions will be taken at three locations in Flanders to achieve a more resilient water supply by means of combining smart spatial planning, intelligent management of buffers and optimised circular water networks.

‘These regional demo areas must deliver new knowledge and expertise on how to make Flanders more resilient to drought and to the effects of global warming’, says Flemish Minister for Environment Zuhal Demir. In this way, Flanders WaterProof makes a significant contribution to the Blue Deal, which sets out to combat drought and water scarcity by implementing a broad package of structural measures.

Hilde Crevits, Flemish Minister for Economy, Science and Innovation, responsible for VITO and co-project lead, is pleased that VITO will launch Flanders WaterProof. ‘It is clear that drought and water scarcity are important challenges for Flanders. That’s why it is good that VITO, with its extensive expertise in this domain, will take on a coordinating role, and will work together with other players in the field. The project benefits from the strengths of Flanders to contribute to the Blue Deal. Through research and innovation we will provide circular water use and better buffering capacity. This will not only contribute  to better water management, nature conservation and smart water use in business parks, but also to a more efficient agriculture and horticulture.’

Decentralised water cycles, water buffering and efficient water and soil management

  • Under the ‘WaterArchitect’ project, a business park in Tielt (West Flanders) will be equipped with a local and smart water network, a kind of smart water grid with builtin flexibility that allows a maximum degree of coordination between supply and demand. This brings about a decentralised collective water cycle. As a local partner, POM West-Flanders is closely involved in this demo, which forms part of the overarching ‘Business Park of the Future’ programme.
  • The ‘KlimaatPlassen’ (Climate Lakes) project focuses on buffering water during wetter periods, in order to improve water availability during drier times. In the wider region around the city of Mol, a well-considered system of water management is to be implemented in former white sand lakes and quarries. This will be achieved in close cooperation with the services of the Governor of the Province of Antwerp, the Flemish Environment Agency and the sand extraction company Sibelco.
  • The ‘WaterGemeenschap’ (Water Community) project involves creating an efficient system of water and soil management in the fruitgrowing area surrounding the town of Sint-Truiden and in the Hageland region. In concrete terms, this will involve the local buffering, infiltration and reuse of rainwater, both on an individual and on a collective scale. This demo is being carried out in collaboration with pcfruit (Proefcentrum Fruitteelt).

Water technology for Flanders

In each of these three demos, VITO will integrate its broad knowledge and experience in the field of water, climate and spatial planning at system level. An innovative monitoring and data infrastructure will also be set up in the demo areas to provide an insight into the operation and the effects of the buffer measures and to permanently monitor them. ‘Within the Flanders WaterProof project, very close cooperation is taking place in a regional context’, says Inge Genné from VITO. ‘But ultimately, it’s not just about the local picture in the three individual demo areas, or the technological innovations being put into practice there. If we look at the wider picture, this is the first practical phase of a dynamic learning process that is in line with the Flemish government’s ambition in the context of the Blue Deal.

The knowledge and expertise that will result from that process will be applied on a Flanders-wide scale and will include the water system in the region as a whole. That is what makes this project absolutely unique.’ According to Aquafin, which is involved in the three demo areas, Flanders WaterProof will help make sure that ‘every drop of water is in the right place’. ‘Our aim is to assure that as much wastewater as possible ends up in our sewage treatment plants,’ says Katrien Moubax, hydraulic engineer at Aquafin. ‘We also try to keep rainwater on site as much as possible by maximizing our focus on reuse and infiltration. With innovative and smart solutions to these water challenges, we are endeavouring to create a living environment that exists in harmony with water.’

The system-based approach used by VITO in the context of the Flanders WaterProof project is also playing a key role within the horizontal action lines of the project. Inge Genné continues: ‘By carrying out system analyses, we want to further map the most important cause-and-effect relationships within the Flemish water system, including interactions that take place with other systems such as energy, mobility, food and health.’ This approach is necessary so that a type of water reallocation project can ultimately be achieved for the whole of Flanders, which will make our region truly waterproof. 

Water arena H2050 for a long-term vision on water

VITO and the Flanders WaterProof partners are in a position to build on the ongoing co-creation process in the Water Arena H2050. The purpose of this is to develop a systematic, long-term vision for water in Flanders. ‘A great deal of thinking has already been done,’ says Yves De Weerdt from the VITO Transition Platform. ‘Our current understanding of the system can now be expanded by applying this knowledge in the development of the demo projects.’ The initiative was taken by Aquafin, De Watergroep and VITO/Vlakwa. Vlakwa (the Flemish Water Knowlegde Center) and the VITO had the privilege to set up and facilitate this track with innovators.

This is resulting in a cross-pollination between Water Arena H2050 and Flanders WaterProof. ‘In order to achieve that, a process of systematic thinking that has already been developed is being used as a means of modelling the demonstration areas, while those very areas offer an ideal opportunity to test out in practice what benefits this systematic vision may actually have on water policy in Flanders.’ Once that systematic vision has been developed, it will provide input into the Flemish research and innovation agenda, which Vlakwa is working on as part of its role to link different players together. ‘Ultimately, we always set out to reinforce policy and prevent ideas from being insufficiently implemented in practice,’ says Bastiaan Notebaert of Vlakwa. The Blue Deal makes it clear that from now on, things ‘have to be done differently’. The combination of an action and learning-oriented innovation process and in-depth water expertise has the potential to enable Flanders to become a leader in water management.

Towards autonomous and responsible water users

Exactly what will become of the three demo areas in early 2025, when the Flanders WaterProof project will end, is still uncertain. That was a conscious decision, because during the implementation of the project, maximum synergy is being sought with local stakeholders, who are playing their part in formulating the central question, thereby ensuring that support for the project is in place right from the start. ‘We will work with all of the stakeholders to examine what needs to happen on these three sites in specific terms’, says Genné. ‘During co-creation sessions, one of the topics we will discuss concerns the possibilities of large-scale water buffering, the concept of ‘water citizenship’ which should make users more responsible but also more autonomous, and the socio-economic value of so-called ecosystem services (for example, the transportation of water by farmers or buffering in nature reserves).’ Ultimately, when determining ‘the value of water’ and who is entitled to use it, it will be a case of reconciling the various interests involved, including within the three very different contexts of the demo areas. ‘This will most definitely become an issue of ensuring the common good.’

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