Water in the circular economy (WiCE) brings water sector together

Joint Research Programme/WiCE Impact: integrated approach for water in sustainable living environment

The societal challenges of today and tomorrow call for a united water sector. Big issues such as the impact of climate change have to be addressed jointly. That is why there needs to be a shift towards systems thinking: thinking from a broader perspective. The Water in the Circular Economy (WiCE) research programme offers the possibility of embracing this big thinking, in the opinion of André Struker from Waternet. ‘This line of research helps the water sector meet up more often. This allows us to make connections between different water themes and to work over the long term.’

As a strategic adviser at Waternet, Struker knows better than anyone that an integrated approach is needed to ensure water makes a contribution to a sustainable living environment. He thinks that the Joint Research Programme with the water utilities, which incorporates the WiCE programme, offers a setting in which stakeholders can engage in the associated discussion. ‘Joint Research Programme-WiCE makes sectors visible to each other; it is accessible and allows people to move closer together. I have seen some great examples, such as the collaboration between a brewery and a Water Authority. By working together, people start thinking differently. The Water Authority learns to look beyond the traditional tasks of water treatment and water-level management. And starts asking: Could we do more with that water?’

Water Factory

When you ask that question to Ferdinand Kiestra, innovator at the Aa and Maas Water Authority, you are asking the right person. Kiestra was involved – as he himself puts it – ‘right from zero hour’ at the Energy and Resources Factory, an initiative that since 2010 has been rolled out nationally at all Water Authorities. Kiestra: ‘In our wastewater treatment we discovered that we could produce more energy than was required by our operations. That’s when we got the idea that we could become an energy provider. That opened a completely new perspective on our role in society. We could provide added value in the quest for sustainable energy. This was followed by the recovery of resources from wastewater. And now we have the Water Factory. For this, a collaborative project between STOWA and KWR mapped out how the Water Authorities could, from within the water cycle, begin playing a role in a robust water provision. And guess what? It turns out we can actually become a water producer and supplier. That is a fundamental system change.’

Water transition

Kiestra admits that systems thinking in the water sector does not come automatically. Guides are needed to help find common ground, and the Water Authority staff member believes that KWR has introduced the concept in an effective manner within the Water Factory. Ruud Bartholomeus, a KWR researcher who focuses on a robust freshwater provision, outlines how this is done. ‘A clear shift can be seen in the water sector. Both the Water Authorities and the drinking water utilities are calling for a water transition. Everyone is aware that we need to deal differently with the available water, but this is pretty complicated. We all make use of the same water system, so how can one discuss the matter? What we do as researchers is to represent the integrated conceptual framework needed for the discussion in an accessible manner. We attach a wide variety of knowledge elements onto the framework. This gives you an instrument with which to find common ground.’ And yet, such a framework sounds quite abstract. But when it is captured in a diagram (see figure), one can quickly see how the water streams affect each other and what happens as you turn the different valves. ‘This is extremely useful as a way of liberating oneself from one’s own perspective and of seeing it within the context of the whole,’ says Kiestra. ‘It makes it easier to understand how you can advance towards achieving a better balance between water demand and supply.’

Water systems thinking

As a member of the WiCE core team, Struker sees a variety of projects. He agrees that the research programme offers an excellent context in which to further develop and extend the water systems thinking. ‘WiCE provides ample space to explore new opportunities, to ask big questions within which the connection is sought, both inside and outside the water sector. This adds value to the research.’ Kiestra also sees this added value in his quest for circular economy examples to emulate. ‘I think that WiCE can contribute by inspiring with new combinations. We need to create new vistas so as to collectively define our direction. From this point of view, systems thinking constitutes a key ingredient in the water transition.’

Lower societal costs

The advantages of systems thinking for the water sector are very clear. From Kiestra’s perspective, it is even a precondition for moving ahead in addressing complex challenges such as the drought problem. And he also thinks that it could lead to lower societal costs. ‘If each organisation thinks only of its own interests, then you will end up with partial optimisations. These are not per se the best solutions for the system as a whole.’ At Waternet, where all water tasks come under one roof, systems thinking is more self-evident. Struker: ‘If you think in this way, you can also make connections with complex urban planning issues. And with what is going on outside the country, where people are using the same umbrella approach. When it comes to realising the circular economy, acting together is certainly the sole option. Only then will you really have an impact.’

Circular water-use implementation

Kiestra and Struker are both convinced that examples like the Water Factory will be emulated. This success should lead STOWA and KWR to work together in a more systematic fashion. And interaction should also be sought in the research with policy makers and decision makers. Struker: ‘Inside WiCE I also call for the incorporation of follow-up steps after the research. How can we draw attention to this knowledge about circular water use, and to what is needed for its implementation? This means that we should also, within the WiCE core team, take a look at our own role. That we should establish a connection between the research topics and the level of administrators, decision makers and people who influence policy, perhaps by involving them in our team. WiCE in this way also offers opportunities to seek out connections on another scale.’ Naturally, initiatives of this kind require a cultural change, admits Struker. ‘We want to invite people at all levels to take part in the thinking.’

This article is one of a series of ‘BTO Impactverhalen’, 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.

Illustration of water demand and supply in the Netherlands (focused on water use due to anthropogenic action), now and in the future (source: Pronk, G.J., van Dooren, T.C.G.W., Stofberg, S.F., Bartholomeus, R.P., 2020. ‘Waterhergebruik en de zoetwatervoorziening (Managementsamenvatting en dataoverzicht op dia’s)’ BTO 2020.011, KWR, Nieuwegein).