On April 27, 2022, Brussels Times published the article “Major Belgian cities in precarious water situation” where it claimed that most of Wallonia and some of Flanders are depleting their renewable water resources at the highest rate in northern Europe. However, it seems that the author misinterpreted data from Aqueduct making the claim mostly false.
The difference between water stress and water depletion
In the article, the author Dylan Carter uses interchangeably the terms water stress and water depletion to describe the situation in Belgium. Yet they don’t entirely mean the same thing. While they both measure the ratio of total water withdrawals to available renewable surface and groundwater supplies, water stress includes both consumptive and non-consumptive water usage. Water depletion only includes consumptive water usage.
Tim Van Winckel is a researcher at the University of Antwerp in the department of Bioscience Engineering. He said that water depletion is worse than water stress. “Stress just means that you’re using almost everything that’s there and depletion really means that you’re making it worse over time”, Van Winckel said.
The water situation
In the article, the news outlet claims that most of the cities in Wallonia and parts of the ones in Flanders are depleting their water resources at the highest rate in northern Europe. However, as shown in the images above, this is not the case. It is true that Belgium ranked 23rd out of 164 countries in terms of water stress exposure by the World Resource Institute in 2019, making the country the third highest water-stressed state in Europe after Cyprus and San Marino. However, Flanders suffers from “extremely high” levels of water stress, meaning that the country withdraws over 80% of available water each year. In comparison, Wallonia only experiences “high” levels which amounts to a withdrawal of 40-80% of its resources. Here’s why.
Why is the situation in Flanders so bad?
According to Patrick Meire, Professor of ecosystem management, University of Antwerp, the first reason for Flanders’ higher level of water stress is the population distribution in Belgium.
“Water availability here in Flanders is very little, because we have a very high population density.” As of January 2021, Flanders registered a population density of 488 inhabitants/km² while the Walloon Region 216 inhabitants/km². This means that there are more people putting pressure on Flanders’ water resources than in Wallonia. Wallonia also represents 55% of Belgium’s physical territory compared to 44% of Flanders and has more natural resources as a result of being less densely populated.
In Belgium, the water resources are distributed between five river basins, with the two main ones being the Maas river in Wallonia and the Scheldt river in Flanders. However, the Maas river has a much larger aquifer, also known as an underground water basin. As a result, Flanders is extracting about 50% of its drinking water from the Albert channel, that connects the Maas and Scheldt river, and the other half is being pulled out of the aquifer. Van Winckel said this puts stress on Flanders’ aquifer. “The deeper you go, the longer it takes for the water to replenish, because it takes a long time to infiltrate through the soil,” he said.
Another reason for Flanders’ higher level of water stress is its treatment of rainwater. For starters, Flanders has 1,500 M³ of rain per person per annum, which is considered low according to international norms. Due to its densely populated land and extensive paved surface area, instead of trickling down into the groundwater, the little rainwater it has ends up in rivers, streams and the sewers. Van Winckel said that both Flanders and Wallonia have historically not made it a priority to preserve and treat rainwater to make it consumable because of the contact it has with the concrete. Since Flanders doesn’t use its rain as much as it’s supposed to, it relies heavily on its aquifers. “We basically do not replenish our aquifer as much as we want to or need to in order to decrease the stress on the system,” Van Winckel said. Nevertheless, Flanders has been building rain tanks to use its rainwater.
Moreover, climate change affects water availability. In Flanders, the Scheldt is highly vulnerable to drier summers and lower water availability, which causes droughts. Spring is the driest season in Belgium which means that regions like Flanders reduce their groundwater availability. Nevertheless, it experiences large amounts of rainfall in the winter so this should enable its aquifers to replenish themselves if rainwater is properly treated.
Another reason why the situation in Flanders has reached this point is the scarce knowledge of the public. According to Meire “if people don’t see the problem they don’t help to implement the solutions.”
The Belgian government didn’t yet apply laws that restrict the water usage and the consequences of water stress are not noticeable on a day-to-day basis. One of the reasons is the importation of virtual water.
According to ENI, the one of the seven supermajor oil companies in the world, virtual water can be defined as “water embodied in the production of food and fiber and non-food commodities, including energy”, Meire affirms that the import of agricultural goods from other countries such as Spain allows the Belgian population not to suffer from the direct consequences of water stress.
Van Winckel confirms on the gravity of the situation: “people don’t really care as much about water because they open their eyes and they see water floating and then they think it is just one other issue.”
The Brussel’s Times’ claim about water depletion in Wallonia and Flanders is mostly false. While it is true that Belgium is in a dire situation regarding water stress, the cities in Flanders and part of France are suffering more than the ones in the region of Wallonia as the data from Aqueduct and the experts Van Winckel and Meire confirm.
RESEARCH | ARTICLE Benedetta Pierri and Sarah Tomlinson, Artevelde University of Applied Sciences, Belgium
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