Forty years of sector research with water utilities

The Dutch drinking water utilities and the Flemish De Watergroep form, with KWR, a research alliance that is unique in the world. In the Joint Research Programme (BTO), we work together on drinking water-related research. In 2023, we celebrated forty years of this collective research. Our long-term alliance has a lot of added value. Drinking water utilities have access to groundbreaking research results and they benefit from the way KWR researchers collaborate with their colleagues at the water utilities. This allows them to provide high-quality services despite increased pressure on water resources, the environment and R&D budgets. The systemic approach and holistic perspective on the societal challenges of collective research generate discoveries that are not confined to the drinking water sector alone and that benefit Dutch and Flemish society.

The whole of 2023 was dedicated to this fortieth anniversary, including a GRROW event and the celebratory BTO Festival Day on 8 June. A sparkling day that focused on the BTO Water in the Circular Economy (WiCE) research programme, intergenerational dialogue and the BTO Implementation Award.


From linear to circular: WiCE

The ‘new branch on the BTO tree’ since 2018 has been the Water in the Circular Economy (WiCE) research programme. WiCE focuses on all relevant knowledge questions relating to the circular economy: questions about technical and physical solutions, questions about needs and preferences, and questions about change. But WiCE is not just a research programme: it is also connects the water sector with other sectors to work on cases from practice. Moreover, WiCE is a knowledge broker that develops, disseminates and collects knowledge. Henk-Jan van Alphen, the co-manager of the programme with Joep van den Broeke, gave a refreshing WiCE presentation at the BTO Festival Day in the form of a TED talk about the need for integrated collaboration and about looking beyond the boundaries of your own expertise and sector at the broader challenges facing society.

Experience and youth meet: the intergenerational dialogue

Young water professionals are bursting with energy and new ideas. The water world, which is becoming increasingly complex and demanding, can benefit. The BTO project GRROW (Generational and Radical Rethinking of the Water Sector) was established to involve young professionals in a structured way in discussions about leading paradigms in the drinking water sector, connect them with other professionals in the sector, and introduce them to research and strategy development.

Nicolien van Aalderen (KWR) brought the audience into the debate and allowed them to make decisions about three dilemmas relating to the future of the drinking water sector. That resulted in animated and intensive discussions and provided the participants with a clearer picture of three scenarios developed as part of GRROW.

An award for the implementation of research

The BTO Implementation Award focuses on implementing research. The award rewards successful collaboration between employees of drinking water utilities or Vewin and KWR researchers that leads to the application of research in practice. In that way, it encourages the application of BTO knowledge and technologies at drinking water companies and results in demonstrable improvements in methods or operations. Thirteen projects were selected, three of which received an award: ENGINE – energy and drinking water in balance, Trigger values and Restoring nature from nitrogen. Restoring nature from nitrogen, from Waternet, Dunea, PWN, Brabant Water, Evides, Vitens and KWR, was the favourite of both the expert jury and the public. This is a project about the creation of drifting dunes – an effective approach for restoring dune grasslands. In the Amsterdam Water Supply Dunes, thanks to the creation of some 300 wind dispersal pits with calcium-rich sand, the wild pansy and the Queen of Spain fritillary are now prospering again. This measure has now been used successfully on several occasions in the Netherlands and other countries. This is an important instrument for water utilities, which not only need dune areas to produce drinking water but also want to take good care of nature and promote biodiversity.

What have we learnt? Looking back at 2018-2023

In the magazine H2O, we looked back at the past six years. During the 2018-2023 programme, the drinking water sector faced significant challenges. Thanks in part to the exploratory study that looks explicitly at what the future may hold for the drinking water sector, there was a strong focus on these issues.

During the past BTO period (2018-2023), the Netherlands was confronted with drought on a large scale for the first time. As a result, alternative sources and reuse, as well as governance, became prominent items on the agenda, according to Ruud Bartholomeus (chief science officer at KWR) and Henk-Jan van Alphen (researcher in resilience management and governance). Sija Stofberg (geohydrology researcher) also drew attention to the rapid development of the topic of drought during the current, expiring, BTO contract: “There is a more strategic approach, and source protection and diversification now play a prominent role as well. By reviewing what is going on at the different water utilities and identifying trends, water utilities were able to learn from one another.”

WiCE: on the road to sustainable and circular

A more process-based innovation from and alongside the traditional BTO was the new Water in the Circular Economy (WiCE) programme. WiCE brings together drinking water utilities, water authorities, private bodies, municipal and provincial authorities, and the national government. It is precisely in the context of the transition to the sustainable and circular design of the water system that we need to formulate a vision with other parties and tackle the new challenges. 

What will we be working on in the years ahead? 2024-2029 Research Vision

The Research Vision Joint Water Research for 2024-2029 for BTO/WiCE describes a varied and topical programme with innovation, valuable knowledge development and management designed to have a social impact. The new BTO/WiCE programme for 2024-2029 began on 1 January 2024. The Thematic Research Programme includes eight themes. In addition, there is the WiCE programme, which is working on the transition to a sustainable, circular economy with a focus on water in a six-year plan for 2024-2029. 

At the BTO and WiCE, the emphasis is on robust, reliable and high-quality scientific knowledge, innovation and technology. The BTO/WiCE research will also benefit the scientific and professional communities in the water sector, and society as a whole.

Read more about the research vision here.