The Dutch waterline for Defence starts here

Utrecht Science Week: The future of our water

Climate change cannot be ignored any longer. In the Netherlands, we already notice that long periods of drought are alternating with heavy rainfall. How will this impact our water system, and how can we deal with it? These questions were the focus of the symposium The Future of Our Water on Friday, 29 September, the start of Utrecht Science Week. I had the pleasure of participating, combining my roles as senior scientist at KWR and associate professor Water at Utrecht University of Applied Sciences (HU).

Broad cooperation

Climate change will affect our water system, posing societal and technical challenges. These can only be addressed by cooperation in the water cycle: drinking water companies, water boards, engineering firms, knowledge institutes and universities. Together, these will form a modern Dutch Waterline for Defence. With Utrecht University (UU), Utrecht University Medical Center (UMC), Utrecht University of Applied Sciences (HU), Utrecht Science Park and KWR, the Utrecht area is the perfect spot to start this cooperation. This is one of the reasons I was appointed associate professor Water at HU some months ago, a role I combine with my work as a senior scientist at KWR. From this dual position, I can shape both research and education in various fields concerning water because we need smart people to tackle our future water problems.

Symposium The future of our water

Jim Jansen led the symposium. Several managers of the UU, UMC, HU and Science Park and Michiel van der Stelt (program Healthy and circular drinking water at the HU) discussed the opportunities to tackle the problems posed by climate change. At the Utrecht Science Park, we are in a perfect position to take the lead to protect our water system.

After the introduction, I was invited to join in a discussion with Wilma Scholte op Reimer (president of the Board of Utrecht University of Applied Sciences), Patrick Cramers (director of the Institute for Life Sciences & Chemistry), and Roy Duijnmaijer (technologist at Brabant Water and former student of the HU), led by Jim Jansen. It was an excellent opportunity to put our water plans in the spotlight for the Utrecht Science Park. For instance, organizing projects on water filters, looking at the use of rain water and e.g. grey water, involving the communication studies of HU in how to discuss water topics with the general public and more. Besides, for me, it was a chance to interest young people. They are the ones that will be affected most by climate change, but also the ones that will have to provide the solutions for the problems we’ll we’ll be facing. HU can play an important role in educating our future specialists and technologists.

Challenges or opportunities?

Various experts from different backgrounds gave their views on the challenges we meet in the water cycle and the solutions we can work on. The public consisted of people working at the Utrecht Science Park or in the water cycle and students. Reinier van den Berg (meteorologist) gave an inspiring lecture about climate change’s effects, which can no longer be ignored. Did you know that climate change already has so many effects that he suggested it is already past 12 instead of 2 minutes to 12?  Sigrid Scherrenberg (RHDHV) showed us some chances and possibilities to tackle water shortages, for instance looking at different sources. Jan Hofman (University of Bath, UK) gave a presentation about water security and how to achieve the sustainable development goals. With models like the City Blueprint, developed at KWR, it is possible to quantify how cities are doing in several water related aspects. This can hold the key how to improve the situation in other cities, as cities may learn from each other. In this way the situation for many people regarding water security may be improved.

There were three parallel sessions, so unfortunately, I couldn’t attend the presentations by Peter van Thienen (KWR) on the importance of exploring extreme climate scenarios for the drinking water sector, and by Cisca Schets (RIVM), showing how climate change, and the measures taken to deal with that, may affect the occurrence of waterborne diseases.

Peter van Thienen.

Stop taking safe tap water for granted

In the second part of the symposium Onno Kramer and Hadi Zamanian (Waternet) showed the enchantment of water and a circular future. Although they pointed out the problems we are facing, they also showed how much we already have done and still can do to improve the situation. The most important topic,  in which also HU has been involved, was the study into the softening process at Waternet. As a result no sand has to be imported anymore from Australia, there is much less waste and the calcium carbonate, which is removed from the drinking water, can be applied in various applications. Hadi’s take was especially very interesting, as he is now working at Waternet but grew up in a country where the availability of safe water wasn’t obvious. This is something we can learn from him, as in the Netherlands safe tap water often is taken for granted. Making people aware of how special the availability of safe tap water is, and how much effort is and will be needed to keep it available, is one of the main assignments of being an associate professor at HU to me. After his presentation Onno was honoured for all the work he has done at HU during the past 20 years.

Hoping to motivate young people

At the end of the day, water sommelier Mariëlle Thiadens organised a water tasting event and presented a pub quiz on the topic of water. It was an inspiring day for all participants, that will hopefully also have motivated some students to pursue a career in water. As I said: young people will be affected most by climate change, but they are also the ones that will have to provide the solutions for the problems we’ll be facing in the future. HU can play an important role in educating our future specialist and technologists.