Connecting the water cycle and the water system for a better balance of water demand and supply

Sufficient freshwater, for all users and functions. This is also a growing challenge in the Netherlands and Flanders. A solution is being sought in self-provision at the regional and local levels, along with a maximised efficiency in the exploitation of freshwater sources. Thinking in terms of, and working on, a circular water system can contribute in many ways in responding to today’s challenges.  From being economical and responsible with available freshwater, to reducing the pressure on groundwater and, insofar as possible, satisfying future water demand for all sectors.

Water systems thinking and modelling

When one thinks in terms of the connections of water streams between sectors and between the water system and the water cycle, one can generate key insights into what is and what is not possible when it comes to developing a more robust water system. It is important to ask a number of questions in this context. For instance, how can the water system and the water cycle be perceived more as a single system? How can water from the water cycle be used responsibly for the freshwater provision, and thereby reduce the pressure on groundwater and freshwater resources?

Through an approach known as ‘water systems thinking and modelling’, one can quickly grasp the consequences of new connections between sectors, or of the more economical use of water in the water cycle. What is important here is to understand how a measure taken in one sector has repercussions on other sectors. These might be positive or negative. An overall understanding is needed in order to build a robust water system on the basis of the (drinking) water sector.

Water systems thinking and modelling: understanding of repercussions, opportunities and problem areas of measures:


Integrated conceptual framework

We are developing an integrated (conceptual) framework that provides all water-system users an understanding of the relationship between water use and water supply. In doing so, we are building upon earlier developed Sankey flow diagrams. Moreover, the conceptual framework links several elements that need to be integrally considered in the process of developing a robust water system, namely: water quantity flows, water quality flows, (land)use changes, regulations and policy.

With the conceptual framework we always frame sub-aspects, such as water reuse and conservation, and groundwater replenishment, within the broad context, and then calculate the effects and scenarios. In this way, we anchor knowledge from the component themes within the ‘big picture’, so that the different expertises are integrated with one another.

From cases to nationwide future images

The project will produce an integrated framework for water systems thinking and modelling. Specific components of the framework will be elaborated in detail on the basis of cases. The combined outcomes will result in nationwide future images of the integration of the water system and the water cycle, and include the degree to which this integration is possible. The question addressed is how the balance between water demand and supply might be improved thanks to solutions produced by connecting the water cycle and the water system.

The project comprises the following work packages and associated products:

  • WP1: Development of conceptual framework and calculation method for ‘water systems thinking and modelling’ as a ‘hanging rack’.
  • WP2: Development of future scenarios.
  • WP3: Water quality, reuse, and legal and regulatory framework.
  • WP4: Cases in which components on the ‘hanging rack’ are elaborated.
  • WP5: Nationwide future images for water system/water cycle integration.
  • WP6: Dissemination & communication.
  • WP7: Knowledge links with basic academic research within AquaConnect.

Collaboration partner(s)

The research takes shape within the Water in the Circular Economy (WiCE) programme – part of the Joint Research Programme with the Dutch drinking water utilities and the Flemish De Watergroep water utility – in collaboration with the Delta Programme Plan on Freshwater Supply. The cases are set up and conducted with regional parties. AquaConnect is also a partner in the project. Doctoral students in this Dutch Research Council research project draw on knowledge, data and experiences from multiple cases. In this way, we link practice with applied and basic research.