Sharing knowledge on innovations in the water sector

Joint Research Programme & Watershare Webinar Series ‘Sharing International Experiences in Water Supply’

A series of 2021-22 webinars, titled ‘Sharing International Experiences in Water Supply’, has shown how a united water sector works together in addressing complex challenges. The current period of transition offers many opportunities for technological, digital, societal and business innovation. Knowledge institutions, water utilities, industry, governments and technology developers can thereby contribute to realising the objectives of the European Green Deal. The webinars, organised by KWR within the framework of its Joint Research Programme with the Dutch water utilities and the Flemish De Watergroep, were used by many stakeholders as a means of sharing knowledge and engaging in discussion.

Over the past year we have experienced up-close the consequences of lengthy periods of drought in the Netherlands, Belgium and pretty well everywhere in Europe. Freshwater shortages have had a strong impact on a variety of vital functions. Water was practically front-page news every day, whether because of hosepipe bans, housing subsidence or the numerous nature areas flaring up as a result of drought. The importance of the availability of water became increasingly concrete by the day. Water is essential for ecosystems and food production, as industrial process water and cooling water for power stations, for materials transport via shipping, and of course for the production of drinking water. Since the expectation is that freshwater shortages could become the new normal, resilient and innovative solutions need to be developed. And we have to accomplish this together within the water sector.

Green Deal

One of the reference points for action is the Green Deal, through which the EU aims to achieve a climate-neutral Europe by 2050. The Green Deal stimulates the development and application of climate-adaptive measures, aimed at the protection and restoration of natural ecosystems, the sustainable use of resources and the improvement of our health. The digital transition is expected to accelerate this change towards sustainable economic development in Europe.

This digital transition means that knowledge institutions, water utilities, industry, governments and technology developers need to collaborate and share knowledge about the complex water issues facing Europe. In the webinar series ‘Sharing International Experiences in Water Supply’, organised by KWR within the context of Watershare and the Joint Research Programme, over the last months a great deal of knowledge was shared and discussions conducted about recent developments and the valorisation of solutions for urgent issues being tackled by the water sector. These concerned climate change, water reuse, the circular economy, digitalisation in the water sector, water quality and the water-energy-food-ecosystem nexus. What follows is a brief presentation of the matters discussed in the webinars.

Complex interactions in the nexus

Water plays an integral role in the water-energy-food-ecosystem nexus. ‘Nexus’ highlights the connections between these elements. In the first webinar about ‘The Nexus: Building Synergies Across Sectors’,  Floor Brouwer (WUR) drew on the results of SIM4NEXUS  to show that complex and dynamic interactions between sectors demand a holistic approach. Examples from NEXOGENESIS  – from Latvia, among others – demonstrate that digital technology is the indicated approach to reveal the degree to which measures and sectoral policy are mutually reinforcing or are indeed in conflict with each other. And interactive serious games can help accelerate the dialogue and decision-making regarding cross-sectoral questions; this was the outcome of the associated webinar ‘Serious Gaming: Enabling Stakeholder Dialogue and Decision-Making’.

Reuse and alternative sources

The media points mostly to two solutions for today’s water shortages: the reduction of water consumption and the search for alternative sources. In Flanders, the possibilities for large-scale application of alternative sources and the development of hybrid water systems are being explored. During the webinar ‘Water Reuse and Alternative Sources’, Louise Vanysacker from De Watergroep elaborated on this by focussing on the research question as to whether, besides the centralised water supply, there is also room for decentralised water supply, using effluent from wastewater treatment, rainwater and grey water.

Another webinar dealing with water reuse was led by Heather Smith from Cranfield University under the title ‘Understanding Public Acceptance of Water Reuse’. The researcher made it clear that the use of treated wastewater for the production of drinking water, and its use in the food chain requires an appropriate, and frequently long-term, communications strategy with an active citizen involvement in the decision-making process. A nice practical example came from the Swedish island of Öland, where wastewater is reused to make drinking water. The acceptance of the reuse of waste materials as new raw materials, including for the production of drinking water, is steadily growing. At the same time, this still remains the biggest obstacle to the large-scale implementation of water reuse. Experience indicates that this is not connected so much to the lack of confidence in the environmental benefits, but reflects social norms and emotion.

Circular solutions

In the webinar ‘Technologies for Smart Circular Water Management’, Christos Makropoulos (NTUA) and Francesco Fatone (UNIVPM) talked about successful circular demo projects. The European Green Deal promotes the transition from the traditional linear economy (produce, consume and dispose) to a circular economy (produce, use and reuse). The objective is to limit as much as possible the depletion of natural raw materials, the negative impact on the environment, and the competition for scarce raw materials, including water. From a circular perspective, wastewater is an (alternative) raw material for the production of water, but also of energy and valuable materials, both of which are stored in it. The synergy with water utilities is expected to contribute to a competitive European industry.

Although the concept of circularity has been known for a while, only a few large-scale model projects have been developed and implemented in the water sector. KWR is working, in ULTIMATE and NEXTGEN among others, on the development of circular water solutions in practice. One example is the Danish Kalundborg, where the world’s first industrial symbiosis complex is located, and the purpose of which is to use the wastewater streams, residuals and residual heat generated in one industrial process in other industrial processes. A variety of companies work together at this location on reducing waste streams. Moreover, together with other pioneering stakeholders in the water cycle, KWR is developing practical circular solutions and is testing them in practice. During the webinar, details were given on two examples of circular pilots, which were partly developed in NEXTGEN and ULTIMATE, in projects coordinated by KWR. The concept of sewer mining is being implemented in Athens. This involves the on-site treatment of wastewater, using a mobile treatment unit, to produce irrigation water for urban tree nurseries. The efficiency of the process is fed with data that are collected in the water system. In the Aretusa industrial complex in Tuscany, a digital twin is being developed to make it possible to separate the sources of wastewater on the basis of quality characteristics. This increases the efficiency of reuse, while lowering the treatment costs. This demo also provides information on the ways in which mineral residuals from municipal wastewater can be processed and applied in the industrial production process. This water-smart symbiosis between water utilities and industry offers numerous opportunities for the recovery and reuse of water, energy and valuable materials. ULTIMATE and NEXTGEN also generate business models, which allow for the organisation of the symbiosis between water utilities and industry.