Jointly in action for water in the future

KWR researchers share diverse knowledge and engage in discussion during AIWW 2023

Sustainable solutions for global issues: that was the focus of water-sector professionals during the Amsterdam International Water Week (AIWW), which was held from 6 to 9 November. ‘Water in Transition. Accelerate the Action’ was this biennial event’s theme. KWR researchers were fully present for the purpose of sharing their diverse knowledge and engaging in discussion with interested participants. Here is an impression of their contributions and the reactions they elicited.

This year KWR and the drinking water utilities celebrate the 40th anniversary of their Joint Research Programme (BTO) on drinking water. ‘Joint’ is the key word for the future of water – a fact that becomes particularly tangible during a very well-attended conference, such as the AIWW last week in Amsterdam.

KWR CEO, Dragan Savic, gave the keynote speech.

Urgent water issues

During his keynote on 7 November, KWR’s CEO, Dragan Savic, aptly phrased the challenges confronting the water sector: ‘We face a future where limited water sources will become even more precious.’ The European ERC Water Futures project is seeking solutions to these challenges by providing the design of smart water systems with a solid theoretical basis, said Savic. KWR works in Water Futures together with the University of Cyprus, Bielefeld University, Athens University of Economics and Business, and the University of Exeter. KWR is currently supervising five PhD students in the project.

The discussion about the intergenerational dialogue was led, among others, by Nicolien van Aalderen.

Intergenerational dialogue

KWR and Vitens jointly organised a round table session during the Integrated Leaders Forum: the opening event of the AIWW. The subject of the discussion was: ‘Fostering Intergenerational Dialogue in Water Management for Tomorrow’s Challenges’. The Forum’s purpose was to bring international leading figures in the field of water together to accelerate the transitions called for by the changing world. By familiarising them with the power of the intergenerational dialogue, it would become evident that young professionals frequently have a great innovation capability as well as transformative ideas. This increases the prospects of coming up with solutions that go beyond those that that reproduce the current state of affairs. The discussion about the intergenerational dialogue was led, among others, by Nicolien van Aalderen. ‘The future that we create now is the world that our children and grandchildren will live in,’ says the young KWR researcher. ‘This means that our dialogue must be grounded in this notion. It is extremely important to look at sustainability transitions over the long term. The session during the AIWW was primarily aimed at shaping the intergenerational dialogue. This does not involve reaching a consensus, but actually learning and reflecting together about the basic premises of our water system. And I think we took some important steps in this direction.’

KWR’s Deputy Director, Mariëlle van der Zouwen, was also present at the working session on the importance of intergenerational diversity for sustainability transitions. What most struck her was the amazing dedication with which the dialogue was conducted. ‘At the end, it was even hard to have to bring the discussions to a close,’ says Van der Zouwen. ‘The time was up, but the dialogue was still in full swing. It was also remarkable to see how easy it actually is to reveal people’s fundamental principles through the intergenerational dialogue method. When the desire to understand rather than to persuade is given precedence, you get to the core of the principles which we can use to shape the future together. This makes for better quality decision-making. We have to grant ourselves and others more free time in this endeavour.’

This inspiring kick-off of the AIWW was followed by numerous presentations and workshops. Here, we highlight various contributions by KWR researchers, along with their own reflections on the experience.

Micro- and nanoplastics

Big questions about small particles were addressed during the workshop on ‘Micro- and nanoplastics: small particles in water trigger big questions’, hosted by KWR researcher Stefan Kools. ‘Cutting back on the amount of micro- and nanoplastics in waters can’t only be shouldered by the Water Authorities and drinking water utilities,’ says the ecotoxicologist. ‘Instead, an approach involving a variety of stakeholders in the chain has proven successful in finding the most effective solutions, as in the textile industry in collaboration with Waternet. What I noticed during the workshop is the existence of a consensus about the need to take action, even though the harmfulness has not yet been proven. As researchers and water sector, we need to be transparent about the uncertainty, but the emissions speak for themselves and show that this will create problems. In the discussion at the table of my colleague Patrick Bäuerlein, reference was made to the fact that only a few labs in the world have the capability of analysing microplastics. There is still a lot of urgent work to be done, for instance in the Joint Research Programme’s research into nanoplastics in drinking water and within the MOMENTUM consortium.’

Stefan Kools during his workshop Micro- and nanoplastics: small particles in water trigger big questions.

Organic micropollutants

KWR researcher Bas Wols made a presentation during the international event on the ‘Prediction of organic micropollutant removal in drinking water treatment processes’. He spoke of how KWR has developed special models to make it possible to predict which type of removal technology was most appropriate in the event of the appearance of a new organic micropollutant (OMP). Wols explained  AquaPriori: an online tool that the water industry can use to quickly evaluate the removal of an OMP. ‘I am pleased to see how our work at KWR dovetails so well with the needs of water practice,’ says the researcher. ‘Reactions from the public ranged from the wish to make the tool applicable for wastewater, to its use in the approval assessments of substances, such as pesticides.’

Groundwater management in coastal regions

A contribution of an entirely different kind came from KWR researcher Niels Hartog. He chaired the workshop on ‘Regional strategies and advanced groundwater management to sustain freshwater supply in coastal regions under stress of salinization’. The session had participants from Terschelling to Singapore. All coastal regions where the water crisis is becoming increasingly acute resulting for instance from the high and increasing population density and need for water, rising sea levels, and seawater intrusion into groundwater aquifers. The discussions concentrated on the experiences with the application of strategies and technological concepts and the technical, ecological, juridical and administrative barriers to the implementation of such solutions. ‘What became very clear is that other sectors can benefit from the experiences in the drinking water sector with large-scale subsurface infiltration, storage and recovery of surface water using Managed Aquifer Recharge (MAR) techniques,’ says Hartog. ‘At the same time, consideration needs to be given to the possible downsides of this infiltration. For example, mobile and persistent organic pollution in surface or treated wastewater represents a threat to water quality in the existing groundwater-dependent drinking water production. An important discussion outcome was therefore the insight that our capacity to combat drought by means of an improved infiltration of groundwater systems goes, to a great extent, hand in hand with a strong prevention of surface water pollution and an improvement of the quality of the water discharged by wastewater treatment.’

Niels Hartog chairing the workshop on ‘Regional strategies and advanced groundwater management to sustain freshwater supply in coastal regions under stress of salinization’.

Water in the Circular Economy

KWR researchers also contributed to discussions during the AIWW on circularity in the water cycle. Water in the Circular Economy constitutes an extensive research programme within the BTO, and KWR is the programme’s substantive leader. Henk-Jan van Alphen was one of the speakers on the subject of ‘Implementing circular solutions in the water cycle – impact, opportunities and barriers’. Circular solutions are usually set on a point on a relatively distant horizon. This is why the KWR researcher talked about the concept of ‘backcasting’. ‘Backcasting helps free us from short-term constraints,’ explains Van Alphen. ‘This allows you to focus your attention on desirable long-term outcomes. You don’t work out a problem conclusively, rather, you work towards an objective. Where, for example, do we want to be in 2050? What do we then need to do in 2045?’ On the basis of concrete issues from a Danish water utility and the Flemish De Watergroep, the participants worked on a transition path. The reactions from the public showed that backcasting provided an appealing impetus to get down to work, says Van Alphen. ‘One person said how clearly this showed the degree to which the transition to a circular economy was a juridical, political and administrative challenge. And that he wants to apply the method as a means of breaking free from short-term interests at management level.’

Henk-Jan van Alphen was one of the speakers on the subject of ‘Implementing circular solutions in the water cycle – impact, opportunities and barriers’.

Water quality

The subject of water quality naturally also came up for discussion at the AIWW. Because this is – along with availability – a core condition that is directly connected with water. During the workshop on ‘Nature-based solutions improving water quality, for healthy and resilient water systems for people and nature’, participants were taken into the world of natural solutions for the improvement of water quality. KWR researcher, and workshop co-organiser, Inge van Driezum, is enthusiastic about the passionate manner in which water quantity as well as water quality was looked at. ‘The contributions from Belgium and Spain were highly inspiring, with visions on applications of wide-ranging methods aimed at improving or restoring water quality and quantity in both urban and agricultural areas. The ensuing discussions showed that not all methods are applicable in all settings, which means that it is extremely useful to have so many methods from which to choose.’

Nienke Koeman’s poster presentation was a good conversation starter.

Resource recovery

To conclude, we hand KWR researcher Nienke Koeman the floor. She gave a talk on the ‘Milk, farmer, water: water reuse from dairy producer to farmer’ project, the aim of which is to make water from the dairy industry available to the agricultural sector, so that less groundwater needs to be abstracted for agricultural use. Koeman outlined various scenarios which clarify the pros and cons of water reuse for various parties. ‘We can look at both the quantitative changes in the water system as well as the costs and benefits for different parties,’ she says. What most struck the researcher was that the participants were open to broadening their views and to thinking about the possibilities. ‘Someone who said they were normally not in favour of effluent use, said that my presentation had prompted them to reconsider their position.’

Besides her talk, Koemen also made a poster presentation titled ‘: Circular chemical use: producing acid and base with (bipolar) electrodialysis from IEX regenerate’. In this project two different membranes were tested for the production of acid and base from a salt stream using electrodialysis with bipolar membranes. The results show that the circular use of chemicals is possible, and would make for a smaller water and chemical footprint in the industry. ‘My poster was a good conversation starter,’ says Koeman. ‘It stimulated numerous discussions. I noticed that not everybody was aware that KWR was working with this technology. We thus showcased our work beautifully!’

Nienke Koeman (second from left) during her talk on the ‘Milk, farmer, water: water reuse from dairy producer to farmer’ project.