Is Flanders dry this summer? That question was at the center of a press conference of the Flemish water companies about a new plan commissioned by Flemish Minister for the Environment Joke Schauvliege to prevent water scarcity in periods of drought. There will be a new escalation plan with four-alarm levels and those who waste water in times of drought risk fines or even imprisonment.
You will probably remember the spring of 2017: in West Flanders, the provincial governor had to take far-reaching measures to guarantee the supply of drinking water. After a prolonged period of drought, the groundwater was historically low. Civilians were given strict restrictions on the use of tap water and agriculture was forbidden to pump surface water.
Too little water every summer
Will Flanders be dry again this summer? It could be. What’s more: we could have known last year, because in Belgium there is a shortage of groundwater every summer. Usually – if it doesn’t come to a major crisis – we don’t notice it. Groundwater should be a strategic reserve for dry periods, according to water experts, but because industry and agriculture pump up water all year round, we run into problems when the reserves have to be used. Moreover, the groundwater layers are becoming increasingly scarce due to further urbanization.
On the Belgian coast there is another problem: salinification. If you pump up too much groundwater in the polders, salty seawater will take its place. As a result, not only does the soil become infertile, but the groundwater also becomes worthless for consumption in the long run.
The crisis is real
Make no mistake, we’re in crisis. Belgium is one of the regions in Europe where water scarcity is most acute, after Cyprus, Bulgaria and Malta. If you compare the average total water availability with the total water consumption (the Water Stress Index) in our country, we are in the danger zone of the EEA (Europe Environment Agency).
So we urgently need to be more intelligent in our use of water, both at home and in industry, where 59% of our water is used. Many companies prefer high quality and expensive groundwater for their cooling while the rain is running off their roofs. Process water is discharged after one cycle and replaced by precious water, while they can actually integrate it back into the production process for other purposes. Investments are made in solar energy, but not yet in efficient water management. Why is this the case?
Good water management yields money
Moreover, a good water management plan not only reduces the water bill, but often also reduces the energy bill. This can be achieved, for example, by reusing hot water. Suppose you need a lot of hot water for a certain part of the production process and water at a lower temperature for another part of the process, it would be a shame to discharge that hot water, because water cools down slowly. In this way, you save significantly on the energy bill, which is usually higher than the water bill: an average family pays an average of 1,875 euros per year for energy and 553 euros per year for water.
In order to meet the strict standards, 83% of our wastewater is already treated before it is discharged, but only a small fraction of that treated wastewater is reused or further purified into drinking water. According to the UN, by 2030 the percentage of reuse must be increased to 40% in order to be able to meet the needs. By that time we will need about 40 percent more energy and 50 percent more water than we have available today.
If the summer brings another drought prick this year, we’re almost certainly facing the same problem as last year, again causing economic damage and extra costs for businesses. So it’s high time we started thinking about responsible water management together.