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Help, the water industry is drowning

“In December our reservoirs in Kluizen Ghent were almost empty,” said Boudewijn Van De Steene of De Watergroep, Flanders’ largest drinking water company. “Normally, the reservoirs fill up in November, but the traditional rainfall patterns have been disrupted and now you get periods of three dry months and then two very wet ones. This has created a problematic situation.” Luc Bossyns of the water purification company, Aquafin, has also sounded the alarm. “It’s difficult to believe, but Belgium is becoming dehydrated. For example, the West Flanders water base has decreased dramatically. You have the frozen food industry, which uses a great deal of water, and the textile sector that washes and rinses its products – Flanders has to dissuade against this. The problem lies in the fact that the water companies have to do two things: they have to cover long periods of drought with sinking reserves, and they have to find a solution for the huge volume of rain at other times. This volume mostly flows away, as the system is not designed to catch it, with disastrous flooding and associated costs resulting. “Climate change is our biggest challenge,” said Bossyns. “We receive less rain, but the showers in summer are much more intense. Our drains were not designed for such heavy downpours.” Aquafin, De Watergroep and the distribution grid administrator for drains, Inter-aqua, are all involved in studies on how to deal with and dilute the heaviest rainfalls. “How can we buffer that surplus? Maybe by diverting it to underground water strata,” said Van De Steene.
The water that ends up in the drains and flows to the water purification plants some 800 million cubic meters a year can be broken down into one-third rainwater, one-third groundwater which seeps into the drains and one-third wastewater. Bossyns says the rainwater must be removed from the equation. “For each house there must be a statutory separation between wastewater and rainwater, something that is done in new houses but not for the old ones in towns.”  Another problem is that a large part of the soil in Flanders is cemented or paved, which means the water does not seep into the ground but into the drains.
Today the large volumes of water mean that the pumps and machinery of the water purifying company Aquafin are running at full steam. By removing rainwater from the system there would be significant savings. Bossyns also believes that construction methods should be smarter, that people should collect rainwater in cisterns and that the authorities should create flood zones.  Fortunately Flanders has five major catchment dams for rain water as well as 75 groundwater locations, guaranteeing 75 percent of the water. De Watergroep suffered a 6.3 million euro loss in 2011, while 2012 saw them profitless once more. Van Steene warned that the price of water would rise dramatically, especially f the reservoirs are drained and water must be obtained from other regions.