AquaConnect: connecting the water sector for water availability

Webinar explains the programme and the contribution of the Aquaconnect consortium

How do we coordinate the Dutch water sector in order maintain adequate water reserves in dry periods? That is the central question of the new AquaConnect research programme, which is co-financed by the Dutch Research Council (NWO). The webinar ‘Water availability connects the water sector’ organised on 20 May by the Circular Water Technology Theme Group of the Royal Dutch Water Network (KNW) marked the launch of the programme. After recruiting PhD students and post-doctorate researchers, AquaConnect will begin in September of this year. Alongside key technologies in the digital and physical-chemical domain, issues relating to governance constitute an important pillar in the research that will make the transition to a circular water chain possible.

AquaConnect is a part of Perspective, an NWO programme targeting the development of new lines of research with economic and social impact. The aim is to use key technologies in order to find ways of increasing water retention capacity in the Netherlands so that water supplies are not threatened, even in dry periods.

Transition to circular water sector

Huub Rijnaarts (of Wageningen University and Research Centre), the coordinator of AquaConnect, opened the webinar by explaining the scope and different levels of the programme. Over the next five years, 37 different stakeholders – technology companies, water authorities, drinking water companies and other partners from the water sector – and four research institutes – Deltares, KWR, Hogeschool Zeeland and Wageningen University and Research Centre – will work on six different work packages and four cases in South Holland, the Amsterdam metropolitan region, Zeeland Flanders and the higher sandy areas of the Netherlands. This is a very comprehensive programme which aims to make a significant contribution to the transition to a circular water sector by delivering innovations in the fields of both science and technology, and governance. “It’s a major challenge,” says Rijnaarts.

Approach from different levels

AquaConnect approaches issues relating to the maintenance of the availability of enough water in the future from different angles. For example, one aim is to produce a local system design that will connect the available water sources, allowing for the re-use of waste water for a wide range of sectors. The retention and storage of rain water in the subsurface is an important element of these ‘smart water grids’. Technologies from the digital and physical-chemical domain constitute the basis for the implementation of the planned innovations. Particular attention is also being paid to how re-use should be supported by new regulations and which instruments are needed to bring about stakeholder participation. Once various demonstrations have been set up, the intention is also to look for ways of establishing connections with delta areas in other countries with similar problems, such as Vietnam, Bangladesh, South America and the Middle East.

Expectations and contributions

In short pitches, representatives of various stakeholders explained their expectations and contributions to the AquaConnect programme. For example, water authorities hope to acquire knowledge input that can be used as a ‘trump card’ in the systemic measures that are already in place for drought control. They see the research programme as an important contribution to transition issues on the road to a circular water chain. And they believe that the decision to go with a multidisciplinary approach is particularly valuable. Water companies hope that, through the AquaConnect programme, they will pick up inspiration and knowledge in order to address water system problems jointly with other parties. They believe technology and governance play equally important roles. For technology suppliers, of course, the main priority is the need to learn about new technologies such as electrochemical processes for water re-use.

Building blocks for application-oriented research

For research institutes such as KWR, AquaConnect promises to provide the building blocks needed to transform the knowledge base into application-oriented research for the water sector. “Good integration between the water chain and the water system is indispensable if we are to establish robust freshwater supplies,” explains KWR researcher Ruud Bartholomeus. “We have also learnt this, for example, from the Water in the Circular Economy (WiCE) programme, which is being shaped by KWR working with drinking water companies and other partners. Together with AquaConnect, we have the opportunity to continue furthering scientific depth in programmes of this kind.”

Pragmatic solutions

The questions arising from the designated cases in AquaConnect will be coordinated and submitted to the researchers working on them. This approach is a requirement of the NWO’s Perspective programme, which was established to develop pragmatic solutions based on scientific knowledge. The central role of STOWA, the knowledge centre of the Dutch water authorities and provincial authorities, also helps to ensure that questions from the water sector will find their way to the research programme. “All of this should help the Netherlands to be not only a leader in delta works established to remove water and manage flood risks, but also to deliver water supplies effectively for a range of sectors,” says Rijnaarts.

Water in the Circular Economy (WiCE) – the water chain and water system are inextricably linked.