Joint effort to address climate changes

Partners join forces to address climate changes

Climate change confronts the drinking water sector with a range of urgent questions. The consequences for drinking water sources and drinking water demand form two important angles of response. Gertjan Zwolsman of the Dutch drinking water utility Dunea believes the problems are being effectively anticipated within the Joint Research Programme of KWR and the Dutch water utilities. ‘The urgency of climate change is now clearly recognised. My expectation is that the Joint Research Programme will now increasingly focus on researching possible solutions in collaboration with the water utilities. I also foresee a flourishing future for our partnership in this field.’

Zwolsman has been actively occupied with the impact of climate change on the drinking water sector for more than fifteen years now. Initially as a researcher at KWR, and today as a strategic adviser at the Dutch drinking water utility Dunea. He recalls how, in 2004, the subject was not yet present on the agenda of the drinking water sector. ‘At KWR, I delved into the question about which aspects of climate change could affect the sector. We tackled the full spectrum: from source to tap.  Now that I’m working at Dunea, it is interesting for me to see, at an operational level, what we researched in those early days.’

Insights for the water sector

Zwolsman’s observation refers, for instance, to the operational problems with the intake of Meuse River water caused by a low river discharge and high water temperature. Salinisation is also occurring, which is something that KWR researchers warned about as early as 2010. Yet, it took a long time before the scientific insights became anchored within the sector. ‘It just takes time for knowledge to get through to policy and implementation,’ explains Zwolsman. ‘Most of all, it must be a matter of urgency. Real measures are only taken when you are confronted in practice with what had previously been predicted. The drought of 2018 provided the final nudge to the awareness that the Netherlands needed to deal with water differently.’

Water availability and drought

The extent of the water sector’s sense of urgency regarding water availability and drought was underscored by the launch this year of the theme-overarching research programme on these questions under the Joint Research Programme. The new programme’s objective is to develop and design knowledge, methods and building blocks for the water transition. This is being done by seeking out collaborations between a wide range of fields, with special attention to the position of the drinking water sector. Zwolsman contributed to the proposal, and explains how the Beleidstafel Droogte (2019) (Drought Policy Committee) provided direction. The Beleidstafel, which was commissioned by the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management, and in which Vewin (national association of water companies in the Netherlands) participated as the umbrella organisation of the drinking water utilities, produced a final report which argued that the water management in agricultural areas must be fundamentally changed. Zwolsman: ‘The governing premise in drafting the Joint Research Programme’s research proposal was that “not all of the water is available everywhere at the right time”. This reflected a shift from “water follows” to “water leads”. Previously, one could see that the functions of areas were specified in the provincial water policy papers. The Water Authority then simply needed to ensure that the water-level management was right. Now a transition is taking place from “the level follows the function” to “the function follows the level”. This means that water management is the foundation for the assignment of functions to a specific area.’

Rethinking in drinking water practice

The now evident consequences of climate change have led the entire water sector to revisit its thinking. What does this all imply for drinking water operations?  Ruben Wentink, Dunea’s strategic stakeholder manager, climate adaptation and water cycle, does have ideas on the question. ‘It’s a matter of approaching the entire water cycle in a different way. We have to look at how we can retain water, or delay its discharge, so that enough is available for the production of drinking water and for other uses during drought and hot periods. We can try to reduce the consumption of drinking water. And we can differentiate between high- and low-value use – for example, you can collect the tap water that you use at home, and then reuse it for another purpose for which water of lower quality is perfectly suited. You can flush the toilet very well with shower water. And thanks to the 2018 drought, the use of rainwater and the reuse of greywater can once again be discussed – and every day brings with it new innovations in the area.’

Drinking Water Policy Paper

In the Drinking Water Policy Paper (in Dutch), which was published earlier this year, significant attention is paid to appropriate water use with a view to preventing a drinking water shortage. The paper, for which the drinking water utilities provided input under Vewin’s lead, articulates the Cabinet’s ambition for the drinking water provision over the next five years. Wentink: ‘We hope that governments will support our aspirations on the basis of this policy paper. Dunea and its partners have developed a water conservation plate. In this concept, the water pipes in a house or commercial building are fed with other sources besides drinking water, such as rainwater or greywater. This is wonderfully suited to new building projects, with water savings of as much as 90 litres per person per day. The technology is there, but the investment required is still high. This makes for a difficult business case. As Dunea, we can’t do this on our own.’

National direction needed

Wentink’s colleague Zwolsman agrees that the water utility faces a quandary. ‘As long as solutions like the water conservation plate are not standardised, water conservation in the Netherlands will continue to depend on the behaviour of a rapidly growing number of consumers and entrepreneurs. The national government needs to provide direction here, for example, by incorporating such solutions into the building regulations. But the government is taking a wait-and-see approach, conscious of mistakes made in the past with household greywater systems. People fell ill as a result of systems that were incorrectly installed. This is still in the collective memory. A terrible shame, because we are twenty years down the road, and the technology is marching ahead. We face an enormous building challenge in the short run. If all we do is keep on talking, the momentum will be lost.’

Scientific burden of proof

But the two Dunea water experts prefer to think in terms of solutions rather than problems. And Wentink does see a way of breaking the impasse and works on it night and day. ‘What we need to do in the context of the Joint Research Programme, is choose one system with which to realise water conservation. As water utilities, we are looking for a reliable approach, one that can be applied everywhere. What helps is to have scientific research satisfy the burden of proof that the newly-developed alternative water systems are safe. If the water quality is fine, the rest will necessarily fall into place.’ With KWR at the side of the drinking water utilities, there is a good chance this will happen, agrees Zwolsman. ‘I know of nowhere else in the world where the drinking water sector is supported by its own research institute. KWR has a huge amount of expertise in the area of water quality. And water reuse is itself a research field in which the institute can continue to develop. I think KWR is doing truly excellent work in expanding its scope, for instance, through the Joint Research Programme’s Water in the Circular Economy (WiCE) programme. What you see in the partnership, is our unity of intent to face climate change together. We want to do research that is beneficial to the entire drinking water sector and to our clients.’

This article is part of a series of ‘Impact Stories’, which are stories about the outcomes of the Joint Research Programme of KWR and the water utilities and the Water in the Circular Economy (WiCE) programme.

Water conservation plate with rainwater and greywater connections (Dunea).