Image: Credit: Research Station for Vegetable Production
Europe’s farmers are facing twin pressures that make their futures uncertain. Put simply the changing climate affects rainfall leaving vast areas in drought, or suffering from increasingly common extreme weather events, and a rising population demands more drinking water. Life ACLIMA is a project looking to alleviate the situation going forwards in the Antwerp region of Belgium. Aether talks to Joris De Nies and Robby Sallaets about their experiences and hopes for the future.
Profile: Joris De Nies
Joris De Nies graduated in bioscience engineering at the University of Leuven.
He has been connected to the Research Station for Vegetable Production since 2005 where he has long expertise in water management and soil management for horticulture.
He is currently the co-ordinator of the Life ACLIMA project and is involved in several other projects.
Profile: Robby Sallaets
Robby Sallaets graduated from Sint-Lucas, School of Arts in Antwerp with a master’s degree in advertisement design.
After working with advertising agencies for over eight years as a copywriter he joined the Research Station for Vegetable Production as a communication manager.
He works at a company level as well as co-ordinating the communication of several (European) projects.
How do you ensure sufficient future water supply for agriculture and horticulture? It’s an important question that is the focus of a promising European Union water project: Life ACLIMA.
Over the course of this Life project, several partners will develop and demonstrate a wide range of technologies, management strategies and measures at agricultural and horticultural practice centres in the province of Antwerp, Belgium. These demonstrations will show farmers and horticulturalists that there are various possibilities for sustainable water availability on their farms, thus making the water landscape more climate-proof while respecting the environment.
In an exclusive interview with Aether, Joris de Nies and Robby Sallaets discuss the Life ACLIMA project, focusing on the key issue of diminishing water availability for the farmers of Flanders.
Image: Keeping chickens cool in barns by spraying them with mist uses less water, because they have less need to drink water. Credit: Research Station for Vegetable Production
Aether: How serious is the water shortage that’s facing the farmers of Flanders?
In Flanders it is a real problem. 2020 was a wet year, but we have had several droughts in the last few years. When we look at the available water per capita, Belgium is in a bad place, just like many other countries. We have a water problem, and we have a very dense population with a lot of users of water, so our water resources are under pressure.
As soon as the drought kicks in there is a high chance that the government impose a restriction on the use of surface water. Citizens are no longer allowed to wash their cars or fill swimming pools, but at the same time, our farmers need to irrigate their crops while industry also needs a fair amount of water. This leads to conflicts and misunderstandings. Farmers in Flanders also use a lot of groundwater. Here, too, we see more restrictions being imposed by the government or permits to pump up water being revoked. So, we have some challenges ahead to ensure that farmers still have access to water in a changing climate.
Aether: Can you outline your Life ACLIMA project?
It’s a Life project. There are five pillars in ACLIMA: water saving; increasing rainwater usage; investing in water infiltration; water reuse by farmers; and the use of external water sources.
We have four main partners, the research centres from the province of Antwerp, taking action in the field of vegetables, dairy, poultry and strawberries. Almost all the agricultural sectors are included in our Life ACLIMA project.
We brainstormed together with experts across the province of Antwerp and across all sectors to see what we could do to have better water usage in agriculture. If we have water, we will use it, but in a smart way.
For example, drip irrigation or keeping cows cool in barns by spraying them with mist, which uses less water, because they have less need to drink water. Where we have polluted wastewater streams, can we recover that and use it for cleaning the barns or in our greenhouses? Can we use reclaimed water from water treatment plants where that water can be used for irrigation needs? There are regulations that need to be put in place in Flanders about the last one because there is a European Union regulation covering it.
In this project, we also aim to build bridges between agriculture and citizens. We want them to know that farmers really need the water to produce their foods but also that they do it in a smart and sustainable way. We want to build a positive story where, in the end, everyone wins.
Aether: In a worst-case scenario, how bad could the situation get?
That’s a difficult question. We can be very pessimistic, but if there is no water for agriculture, then there will be no food production. We have to be sure that we can have water in a sustainable way. That is the big challenge for the next decades.
We do believe in structural solutions such as the principle around Aquifer Storage and Recovery. The use of reclaimed water can also be seen as part of the solution. But with both initiatives, there are still practical and legal barriers to overcome.
Image: In Antwerp we have a lot of greenhouses. Credit: Research Station for Vegetable Production
Aether: Do you feel the issue is being taken seriously enough at the government level in Flanders and elsewhere?
A few years ago, the government acted rather in the short term. They would see a problem with water supply so they would say farmers cannot use water from streams or from public water bodies. It was not a structural approach. We are now seeing a slow shift towards a more structural solution. There are a lot of efforts ongoing to protect our water and in some cases there can be conflict, for example, the government has a programme called the Blue Deal for Flanders which is about climate adaptation for industry, farmers and nature. A lot of water users can lead to conflicts during extreme weather so that is definitely something to keep in mind when developing such programmes. But they do have a much more long-term vision, although we still have a long way to go. In my opinion, the structural solutions are the route we must take; we are moving but it will grow slowly.
And there are examples of what can be done. We visited Spain some years ago and there the farmers are grouped into associations, and they divide the available water. They have a system where, depending on whether one reservoir is low compared to another, they might transport water over several kilometres to help each other out. Flanders is not Spain, but that is an example of a structural solution. I am convinced that in ten years such solutions will be much more common.
Aether: Why is Flanders such a useful area to conduct this research?
Flanders is a little bit special. It’s small, but we have a lot of inhabitants. We have to combine a lot of things but on a small scale. We want nature, we want agriculture, we have citizens, and we have urbanisation, all with their own issues, but all rely on water. That means there are opportunities to investigate, but our problems are more difficult than many other areas, so that makes Flanders a bit of a special case.
Aether: Can you provide some examples of the kinds of adaptive technologies you are hoping to demonstrate that will help agriculture?
Drip irrigation is a very good solution for vegetables. It’s not complicated, but in Flanders it isn’t very common. It is more common in areas that have drought, so we have to convince our farmers that they need it. Smart technology is used for the strawberries. Several sensors keep an eye on the drought level, so irrigation is only needed on demand of the plant.
In the poultry and dairy sectors, we can cool down our animals so they use less drinking water. And when we clean poultry or cattle barns, they now have closed loop systems so that when they use water during cleaning, they purify the water ready to reuse during subsequent cleaning operations.
In Antwerp we have a lot of greenhouses, so we have examples of what we can do there. That sector strives to collect rainwater in reservoirs to fulfil the water demand of the crops, but then we lose a significant amount to evaporation. We can cover the collected water to reduce that loss. We have a small demonstration using different covering materials to calculate to what extent we can prevent transpiration.
We also look at what happens should we have a lot of water in a short space of time. Can we refill the groundwater reserves? Can we infiltrate the water? We have a lot of experiments looking at fields where we have underground drainage pipes, and we are looking at whether we can adjust the water level. There is no mechanisation needed, but perhaps we can set the water table higher in a particular period, controlling the drainage system to our advantage.
We also see in that case that there is some capillary rise of the groundwater around the drainage pipes and that has a positive effect on the crops.
In greenhouses, we already reuse our nutrient-rich water, but when the water becomes contaminated with diseases, we have to get rid of that water; so, it’s a loss of water. With new techniques, we can purify the water to a higher level. For example, we are using nano- and ultra-filtration systems, which use small tubes, previously used for kidney dialysis that captures the particles you don’t want.
Image: In greenhouses, with new techniques, we can purify the water to a higher level. Credit: Research Station for Vegetable Production
Traditionally, Dutch water management for agriculture has always been directed at rapid drainage and discharge. Conventional drainage reduces the probability of water damage to roots. If groundwater levels remain very high for too long, roots can die off and the crop production will decrease. On the other hand, conventional drainage also ensures the discharge of precious water at times when the groundwater table may well be higher. Besides, the conventional drainage of arable land can be detrimental to nature conservation areas nearby.
In controlled drainage, the groundwater is not immediately discharged but (partly) retained in the soil. By varying the level of the drainage basins, the draining intensity can be regulated. Controlled drainage then becomes a tool for taking more effective advantage of specific (expected) weather conditions and maximising the advantageous effects of drainage while minimising the (possible) disadvantageous effects where possible.
In the next step, rainwater from paved surfaces can be collected locally which leads to a reduced risk of downstream inundation in periods with abundant rainfall. Due to climate change, summer rainfall days are fewer but often more intense. The short heavy rains also mean that precipitation cannot sufficiently infiltrate into fields, further increasing the drought deficit for crops. However, by infiltrating this collected water into the drainage system, we can avoid drought damage. Therefore, controlled drainage is a very promising measure for uniting agriculture and areal spatial development.
Image: Smart technology is used for the strawberries; several sensors keep an eye on the drought level, so irrigation is only needed on demand of the plant. Credit: Research Station for Vegetable Production
Image: We have a small demonstration using different covering materials to calculate to what extent we can prevent transpiration. Credit: Research Station for Vegetable Production
Aether: How are your innovations being received in the agricultural sector?
Some of the techniques are not particularly new to Europe, but when we go to a farm and talk to the farmer, we can explain how they can save water through the different techniques we have. Depending on whether the farmer is interested, we make an appointment, ask some questions and conduct a water audit, showing them where there might be opportunities for them to control the levels in their drainage systems, or where they can make some adjustments to improve things. The farmer may already have thought about a certain process regarding water, but we may be able to suggest another. It is about making them more ‘water robust’.
Life ACLIMA is about getting things done. It is not only the demonstration of some techniques that are relatively new for Flanders; it’s also the implementation that we want to facilitate.
Joris De Nies
The Aclima project has received funding from the LIFE Programme of the European Union under contract number LIFE 20 CCA_BE_001720.
It is also funded by the Province of Antwerp, Blue Deal and the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries.