Image: Belgium ranks 23rd globally in the 2019 National Water Stress Ranking. Credit: Research Station for Vegetable Production


B-WaterSmart is a Horizon 2020 project looking at ways of improving water usage through smart technologies and circular economy approaches. Here, Joris De Nies and Sander Bombeke of the Research Station for Vegetable Production discuss the Flanders (Belgium) living lab, one of six taking place across Europe.


Profile: Joris De Nies


Joris De Nies is a graduate in bioscience engineering at the University of Leuven.

He has been connected to the Research Station for Vegetable Production since 2005 where he has a long expertise in water management and soil management for horticulture.

He co-ordinates and collaborates in different (EU-funded) research projects.


Profile: Sander Bombeke


Sander Bombeke graduated with a master’s degree in horticulture from the University of Ghent, and water management from the University of Antwerp.

He is a researcher in sustainable water management at the Research Station for Vegetable Production.

He specialises in drainage and irrigation techniques in outdoor crops.

The water sector in coastal areas is facing challenges such as water scarcity and increasing water demands due to climate change and economic and population growth. This can lead to overexploitation of resources, quality deterioration and regional imbalances in the availability of water resources. To tackle these challenges, the European research project ‘Building a water-smart society and economy’, or B-WaterSmart for short, develops and demonstrates smart technologies and circular economy approaches.

In order to implement those solutions more strongly in practice in the water sector, technical and digital solutions as well as new business models are jointly developed by the project partners. The aim is to accelerate the transformation to water-smart economies and societies in coastal Europe and beyond by reducing the use of freshwater resources, improving the recovery and reuse of resources, and increasing water use efficiency.

The research therefore is based on specific problems in six European coastal cities and regions that have great ambitions to tackle their challenges and opportunities by implementing water-smart technology and management solutions.

Water companies from Alicante in Spain, Bodø in Norway, Lisbon in Portugal, East Frisia in Germany and Venice in Italy develop and demonstrate solutions as Living Labs, together with research partners and local technology providers. Flanders in Belgium is the sixth region and the focus of our research.


Image: B-WaterSmart is also about getting the wider neighbourhood involved. Credit: Research Station for Vegetable Production

The B-WaterSmart project

The B-WaterSmart Project is a major project in Europe. It’s a Horizon 2020 Research, Innovation and Action programme about water smartness on very different levels. In Belgium, we are facing difficulties due to a number of local factors: high water demand for agriculture; groundwater overexploitation; water quality deterioration; extreme weather events; water scarcity due to droughts; climate change; and urbanisation; high drinking water demand due to a dense population.

Belgium ranks 23rd globally in the 2019 National Water Stress Ranking, and there is a high sense of urgency – at all levels – to work towards more robust water systems. Several concepts are currently explored by the case partners, including the treatment of wastewater for high-end reuse, the improvement of drinking water production to allow year-round water intake thus becoming more independent from variations in water quality supply, and stormwater retention and reuse for agriculture.

In Flanders, we have four sub-cases. We have one co-ordinated by De Watergroep, a water supplier in Flanders, where they are tackling the need for more water for the inhabitants in the West-Flanders region. They are looking at the desalinisation of river water with a high recovery membrane technology (CCRO) as salt concentrations increasingly hamper the use of surface water for drinking water purposes in the project region.

Another sub-case is a collaboration between Aquafin and De Watergroep. Aquafin investigates to what extent wastewater effluent could be upgraded for use in the existing drinking water plant of De Watergroep.

Next to that, a third sub-case is dealing with the development of a regional model that describes and visualises the water flows in the different compartments to facilitate decision-makers. This case is developed by KWR.

The last sub-case is located in the city of Mechelen where there is a lot of urbanisation and new housing and is co-ordinated by the Research Station for Vegetable Production and the City of Mechelen together with Aquafin, KWR and VITO. In the case of a severe rain event, there isn’t a local water facility present to collect all of the rainwater, so the city had already decided to build a reservoir to collect the water from extreme weather. We got in touch with the city suggesting that B-WaterSmart could add some value to their project and the consortium thought it was a nice idea to build on.

It’s important that we have a living lab (which follows the quadruple helix of government, academia, industry and the public, and we have partners in all four) and that we are doing something here for the local community of Mechelen where we can infiltrate water using advanced techniques.

Agriculture and community

In this sub-case, we did some trials to see how fast the water infiltration was and how it related to the harvest. We also tested our smart technology for water demand where we provide water from our reservoir to the field that needs it the most. There’s a brand-new world of sensors, data and smart software that we would like to explore more. Those trials took place on our test field between Brussels sprouts and the pumpkins.

Around Halloween last year the Research Station for Vegetable Production and the City of Mechelen organised a small pumpkin event. It was designed to get the local neighbourhood involved and to make them understand that the water that lands on their roof ends up being reused in agriculture. So, yes, we are looking at the broader concept of helping the farmer with water, but it is also about getting the wider neighbourhood involved as well, so that they get to know that they are part of the solution with the water supply.

One thing we have noticed is most citizens are no longer well connected with the farmer and the problems they are facing; they are too far away from agricultural activities. We are trying to bring citizens and agriculture a little closer together.


Image: Around Halloween last year the Research Station for Vegetable Production and the City of Mechelen organised a small pumpkin event. Credit: Research Station for Vegetable Production

Going forward

The project ends in September 2024. We had a relatively long phase of research, and we now have the data transformation of the drainage system of the fields that are involved in the project. The construction was a little delayed, but that is now in full swing; the reservoir is being built right now and we hope it will be finished this summer. Then we can infiltrate the rains in the autumn.

Once there we will look at future co-operation, because normally at the end of a project, we are out of the system and it then becomes about how we create an organisation to make sure the infrastructure is kept running, what happens when costs arise, or when repairs are needed. In the next few months, we will be discussing the type of organisation that we will need. We are building communities so that we can gather valuable insights (e.g. regarding valorisation) that can be put to good use after the project life to maintain and operate the water smart solutions developed in the project.

The experiences from both demonstration sites will be used to identify the potential for the valorisation of the applied technologies at a larger scale at those and other locations, as well as the implementation of newly identified and demonstrated technologies at other locations in the regional water system. The insights will inform a roadmap for the realisation of a systemic smart water management system in Flanders for the coming decades.

Image: We now have the data transformation of the drainage system of the fields that are involved in the project. Credit: Research Station for Vegetable Production

Joris De Nies

Sander Bombeke


This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No. 869171.