Fresh water scarcity in Zeeuws Vlaanderen

Innovative solutions for agriculture and industry in a coastal region

Emma McAteer, coordinator Water Technology Research Group Ageeth van Maldegem, coordinator Centre of Entrepreneurship and Innovation Niels Groot, lector Water Technology Research Group

In recent years, fresh water resources in coastal areas have come under increasing pressure due to more frequent droughts, salinization and the loss of fresh water via drainage to the sea. Industries located in these areas who depend on fresh water resources to survive are particularly affected by this threat. In the area of the Southern Braakman in Zeeuws Vlaanderen, two industries are feeling this pressure; Dow Benelux bv and local agriculture. Dow’s fresh water annual use alone is 22 million m3, which they cover with a mix of recycling loops and fresh water supply from outside of Zeeland. On the other hand is the local agricultural industry who in past summers has suffered greatly from a lack of fresh water availability. Both parties need a more local solution to fresh water supply and that is where researchers and students from HZ University of Applied Sciences come in; working together on sustainable local solutions to this global problem.

FRESH4C's: The Dow case The Dow Benelux bv facility in Terneuzen has a huge fresh water demand of 22 million m3 per year and as the surrounding surface and ground water is mildly brackish, various water recycle loops have been established to cover this demand, but still a significant part (4-5 million m³) of fresh water must be sourced remotely via a pipeline. In order to become more independent by using locally sourced fresh water, Dow is using the Interreg 2Seas FRESH4Cs project to investigate opportunities for nearby fresh water supply. From a technical perspective the project is investigating underground storage of extra fresh water in an existing fresh water aquifer for example. If the ground conditions are favourable (clay vs sand) and the aquifer has enough capacity, this could be a possible storage option. This would mean that excess fresh water such as rainfall during the winter could be stored away underground and later abstracted for use in times of scarcity such as during a summer drought. Dow has offered to investigate the opportunity for collaboration with regional farmers and landowners in future scenarios, in which they also would benefit from fresh water availability in dry seasons. This would be a win-win for both agriculture and industry who are struggling with the fresh water scarcity problem. Investigating both technical and social-economic aspects. The HZ Water Technology Research Group together with Deltares are aiding Dow with this technical investigation with the goal of pinpointing suitable locations for underground storage of fresh water and eventually narrowing this down to one location for a pilot installation. The technical aspects are of course essential to investigate but they are not the only considerations in such a project. The HZ Centre for Entrepreneurship and Innovation is also exploring the legal, policy, economic, and social aspects that can pose either as barriers or opportunities in such a scenario. At the time of writing they have already interviewed a wide group of stakeholders in Belgium, the Netherlands and the UK, to gain cross border insight into water management and differences in approach.

Local collaboration In October 2019 and March 2020, Dow and HZ organised workshops with local interested parties to explain their goals within the project and present the results of the technical investigations to date. During the workshops interested farmers from the local area highlighted their plots of land on maps so initial studies could be conducted regarding the suitability of their land for underground storage of fresh water. A start was also made with exploring farmers’ interest and conditions for joint exploitation of such a storage facility. Conversations during the workshops highlighted that currently cooperation between farmers is limited. The farmers present at the workshops displayed however a keen interest in learning how cooperation can increase the availability of water, while making clever use of the available infrastructure. Such a cooperation could have high value as periods of droughts can suppress farmers’ revenues with 20-50%. One of the local farmers present at the last workshop commented; “We have already made some investments in deep drains in the past, but now we definitely need to expand this. The question now becomes how can we do this in a smart way, considering the plans of others as well.”

Interdisciplinary HZ The HZ researchers involved in this project come from a variety of backgrounds and therefore recognized that this project poses a unique interdisciplinary learning opportunity for students from several domains across HZ. To date the students involved have come from Bachelor programmes such as ICT, communication, commercial economics and water management but also from the Master programme River Delta Development. In this way, each student brings their own experience and perspective to the project which allows them to work more effectively together on complex issues, whilst being supported by HZ researchers and experts from the field. Students were actively involved in meeting stakeholders, organising and reporting of workshops, and subsequent interviewing of interested farmers. A small group even accompanied the researchers to the UK for face to face interviews with stakeholders from the wider FRESH4Cs project. The students highly appreciated the real-life setting for practicing interview and analysis skills, while the close collaboration with the researchers gave them the courage to step outside their comfort zone. The interaction with students outside their own study program clearly introduced new perspectives and helped the students in achieving deeper-levels of insights. As stated by an examiner of the minor about one of the students: “before this minor he was never really confronted with the scarcity of fresh water in our region and now he gives a 10 minute lecture about it, giving a pretty good overview of the wide set of problems and stakeholders and the complexity involved..”

From paper to pilot As a next step for the Dow case within the FRESH4Cs project, the researchers are now having more in-depth interviews with the farmers who expressed their interest in a collaboration. Combining this social-economic evaluation with the technical assessment of suitable storage areas, two to three preferred locations will be highlighted for further technical investigation in the form of field measurements during the summer months which will then eventually lead to the selection of one suitable location for a physical pilot installation.


Een essentiële bron Naar schatting is slechts 2,5% van de totale waterhoeveelheid in de wereld zoet water. 70% daarvan is opgesloten in gletsjers en ijskappen en bijna 30% bevindt zich ondergronds. Het hoeft dan ook geen verbazing te wekken dat de zoetwaterbronnen onder druk staan en dat de beschikbaarheid van zoet water steeds schaarser wordt. Dit probleem wordt nog verergerd door de snel groeiende wereldbevolking en de groei van water intensieve processen zoals de landbouw en de industrie. Zoet water is een essentiële hulpbron voor de natuurlijke ecosystemen en het menselijk levensonderhoud, maar wat kan er worden gedaan als deze bron wordt bedreigd? FRESH4Cs is een project dat wordt gefinancierd door het Interreg 2 Seas Programme en dat zich richt op de vraag hoe alternatieve zoetwaterbronnen worden gecreëerd of zoet water opgeslagen in kustgebieden voor later gebruik in tijden van nood.

Waarom kustgebieden? Het FRESH4Cs-project richt zich specifiek op alternatieve zoetwaterbronnen in kustgebieden in Nederland, België en het Verenigd Koninkrijk. De betrokken partners van elk land hebben te maken gehad met zoetwaterschaarste en droogte in de kustgebieden, vooral in de afgelopen jaren toen de zomers warmer en droger waren. Alle landgebieden kunnen te maken krijgen met droogte en zoetwaterschaarste, maar de kustgebieden hebben de extra dreiging van verzilting, het binnendringen van zout water uit de zee dat zich ondergronds het binnenland in beweegt. Deze verzilting verontreinigt de bestaande zoetwatervoorraden en beperkt de opbrengst van landbouwgewassen. De landbouw wordt zwaar getroffen door verzilting en zoetwaterschaarste, maar ook andere sectoren voelen de druk. Elke water intensieve industrie in een kustgebied voelt zich mogelijk geïsoleerd van zoetwaterbronnen en kan daardoor afhankelijk zijn van externe aanvoer.

Members of the Fresh4C’s project group:

  • Emma Mc Ateer, coordinator Water Technology research group (photo top left)
  • Niels Groot, associate professor Water Technology and water specialist at Dow (photo bottom left)
  • Hans Cappon, assistant associate professor Water Technology
  • Bart Letterie, lecturer Water Technology
  • Ageeth van Maldegem, coordinator and senior researcher at Centre of Entrepreneurship and Innovation (photo middle left)
  • Stef Bleyenberg, researcher at Centre of Entrepreneurship and Innovation
  • Mariska Polderman – Karreman, project manager Centre of Entrepreneurship and Innovation