Researchers of Utrecht University join AquaConnect, combatting future freshwater shortages

Installatie om water uit de sloot op het land te sproeien, bij een boer. Foto: Lucas van Oort via Unsplash
Installation to spray water from a ditch onto the land. Photo: Lucas van Oort via Unsplash.

Tackle the drought with solutions for bottlenecks in the future freshwater supply, for example through the reuse of wastewater and brackish groundwater with the help of new water treatment technologies. This is the goal of "AquaConnect", a multidisciplinary research programme in which scientists from the Faculty of Geosciences and the Utrecht University School of Law are collaborating. Business, local governments and other educational and knowledge institutions also participate in AquaConnect and have received four million euros from the Dutch Resource Council (NWO) from the Perspectief Programme 2019-2020.

The total budget for AquaConnect is approximately six million euros, because companies, governments and social organizations also contribute two million euros themselves. The research program focuses on solutions with which the Netherlands and other delta regions can increase self-sufficiency in freshwater supplies in order to prevent future freshwater shortages as a result of severe drought. AquaConnect is being led by Huub Rijnaarts, head of Environmental Technology at Wageningen University & Research.

Increasing self-sufficiency

Herman Kasper Gilissen, associate professor of Administrative Law and researcher at the Utrecht Center for Water, Oceans & Sustainability Law, is involved in the legal and governance part of the AquaConnect: “I am of course extremely pleased that this programme has been awarded, and especially that the legal and  dimension has been given a prominent position in it.

We will map out legal and governance preconditions for innovation in the freshwater supply.

"In previous research we concluded that - among other things - increasing self-sufficiency and tapping into currently unusable water supplies are important steps to solve future problems with the freshwater supply. We can now build on those insights. to work by mapping the legal-administrative points of attention and preconditions for innovative technical developments in the freshwater supply with an area-oriented view.”

Smart water connections

To provide fresh water, mainly waste water and brackish groundwater are purified. The participants in the consortium use a system to determine which water quality belongs to which use. Not only chemical but also digital technologies are used. The researchers are working on advanced computer models to connect water providers and users via "smart water grids". Water storage in the subsurface is part of this. Marc Bierkens, professor of hydrology at Utrecht University, is responsible, together with the research institute Deltares, for the modeling of the natural water system, including the subsurface. Bierkens: “We build advanced surface water-groundwater models in which we can simulate, among other things, the storage of fresh and salt groundwater and the extraction of brackish water. These technologies are important to design the water grid in such a way that it is climate-resilient and can continue to deliver under future extreme droughts.

We build advanced surface water-groundwater models in which we can simulate, among other things, the storage of fresh and salt groundwater and the extraction of brackish water

Marc Bierkens
Hoogleraar hydrologie aan de Universiteit Utrecht

Gilissen: “The solutions are mainly technical in nature, but their implementation involves important legal and institutional questions. How are the quality requirements guaranteed; who is responsible for the purification and delivery of the water and what responsibilities are involved; how are all this embedded in a legal and governance manner within the existing frameworks of the freshwater supply; how are any risks dealt with? I can go on and on." 

AquaConnect is a large consortium.

A large number of parties from the water sector and beyond are participating in AquaConnect. The participants are (in alphabetical order, and in Dutch): Amsterdam Institute of Advanced Metropolitan Solutions-AMS, Brabant Water, Deltares, Dow Benelux, Dunea, Evides, Gemeente Amsterdam, Gemeente Terneuzen, GlastuinbouwNL, Haven van Rotterdam, Hoogheemraadschap Hollands Noorderkwartier, HZ University of Applied Sciences, ICT Netherlands B.V., KnowH2O, KWR Water, ministerie van Infrastructuur en Waterstaat, Netherlands Water Partnership (NWP), North Sea Port, Nijhuis Industrial Technologies, NXFiltration, Oasen, Provincie Noord-Brabant, Provincie Zeeland, Provincie Zuid-Holland, Royal HaskoningDHV, Shell, Advocatenkantoor Stibbe, STOWA, Swinkels, Technische Universiteit Delft, Technische Universiteit Eindhoven, Unie van Waterschappen, Universiteit Utrecht, Universiteit van Amsterdam, Universiteit Twente, Vitens, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, Wageningen Environmental Research, Wageningen Food & Biobased Research, Wageningen University & Research, Water Alliance, Waterschap Aa en Maas, Waterschap Rijn en IJssel, Waterschap Scheldestromen, Waterschap Vallei en Veluwe, Waterschap Vechtstromen, en Witteveen+Bos.