Preserve and enhance the value of water throughout the cycle

Mid-point of the Water in the Circular Economy (WiCE) research programme

The Water in the Circular Economy (WiCE) research programme revolves around the preservation of value in the water cycle: the value of the water itself, of energy and of raw materials. Within the mostly multi-annual projects, partners from the drinking water sector are working with partners from other sections of the water cycle, and the initial results are already finding applications in practice. WiCE programme managers Joep van den Broeke and Marcel Paalman look forward to generating even more impact during the second half of the programme.

But be careful: the circular economy is not about circularity and resource loops per se. It is about value. A circular approach is a means of preserving value, or even adding value where there was none before. ‘That is an important realisation: it all revolves around value. And at KWR, it naturally revolves primarily around value in the water cycle.’ These are the words of Marcel Paalman, senior researcher at KWR. ‘In the Netherlands we produce the best drinking water in the world. And after all that value is stored in the water as a result of a considerable effort, we render that same water valueless in the couple of seconds between the shower head and the shower drain. So much so, that the water has then first to go to a WWTP before it can be discharged. Talk about valueless and value loss! But that water is absolutely not valueless – and it is high time that we act accordingly!’


Circularity is an important theme for KWR. The institute’s researchers work on a circular economy via European research, TKI and Allied Waters, for instance. Paalman and his colleague Joep van den Broeke are the programme managers of WiCE, Water in the Circular Economy, which began in 2018, and will run at least through to 2023. WiCE is part of and complements the Joint Research Programme of KWR and the drinking water utilities. Through this research programme the drinking water utilities aim to contribute – together with their partners in the water cycle – to the response to societal issues and challenges, such as the circular economy, climate adaptation and the sustainable energy transition.

Water, energy and raw materials

The value of a water stream is greater than the water itself. A water stream also contains energy and raw materials – even if these are still frequently referred to as waste materials. Paalman: ‘As they now say in the waste sector: there is no such thing as waste, everything has value. It’s a matter of using that value again; and of recovering as much of it as possible following use. And that’s where the circularity enters the picture. You need to create ‘little loops’; to organise the reuse. For example, you could treat shower water separately for its reuse; you could also reuse its heat. But who is going to do it? The Water Authorities? The drinking water utilities or commercial players? When you take a look at the options, it quickly becomes apparent that circular water questions can only be effectively tackled jointly by multiple actors within the water cycle. This opens the path to practical solutions. Suppose that we manage to reuse shower water. We could then contribute to reducing the drinking water shortages that present a threat during hot summers.’

Cycle-wide approach

Joep van den Broeke also stresses that circular water questions must be tackled by several parties. ‘Within the WiCE programme, water utilities, Water Authorities and government, knowledge organisations and businesses work together on national and international projects, which have been explicitly set up with partners from the entire water cycle. The partners also learn in the projects how to connect with and understand each other, which then makes it possible for them to together effectively place water on the societal agenda. Most WiCE projects run between 2 and 3 years, a period during which this cycle-wide collaboration is granted the space to grow and consolidate. This aspect is one that the project participants appreciate greatly.’

Results of the first half of WiCE

The first years-long WiCE projects are now either completed, or in their final phase. Van den Broeke: ‘They have produced good results, which are now being implemented in practice. I am thinking for instance of the Optiematrix, which was partly developed within the WiCE framework: a decision-support tool for managers, practice innovators and scientists, to engage in discussions on innovation in water governance. This tool has already been applied in various projects of the Water Knowledge Action Programme, which is connected to WiCE. Moreover, the Optiematrix is now also being used at Waternet for instance. Another result are the Sankey diagrams that chart water and substance streams, offering a manner of representation that resonates strongly at drinking water utilities and regional authorities, and are being increasingly used, for example in the Circular Water 2050 and WWTP as Water Factory projects.

Societal impact

The objective of WiCE in the years ahead is to further develop applied solutions for the water cycle and to explore new possibilities. Joep van den Broeke: ‘Ideas for new projects are always welcome. The prerequisites are that they involve collaboration with partners from different sections of the water cycle, always including the drinking water sector, and that the partners contribute half of the funding. We also especially want to ensure that the solutions that we develop swiftly find applications in practice, so that our work also has a societal impact.’ Paalman adds: ‘Impact involves more aspects than the technical alone. What is the regulatory situation, who and which organisations do you need to have on-board to enable implementation? We would also like to take the steps needed to move towards achieving a more effective application of the research on water in the circular economy. It is after all not for nothing that KWR’s motto is “bridging science to practice”!’