'Tense weeks ahead': Unprecedented water-saving measures increasingly becoming reality

'Tense weeks ahead': Unprecedented water-saving measures increasingly becoming reality
A volunteer watches out for signs of fire from the top of a fire guard tower at the Kalmthoutse Heide nature reserve. Credit: Belga/ JONAS ROOSENS

Last week, an alert phase was declared in light of the drought in Flanders. As the situation continues to worsen, it is possible the region may enter code red, which would entail unprecedented restrictions.

According to the EU, the current drought could be the worst in at least 500 years. Belgium faced one of the driest springs in history this year and then recorded its driest July in 137 years. It has received little relief since, as rainfall is failing to materialise.

"We were worried before, but now the situation has become even more critical towards the end of the summer," groundwater specialist Professor Marijke Huysmans told The Brussels Times. "In Flanders, we are actually finding ourselves closer to the darker side of code orange, very close to red, which is not good news."

Entering code red means there is a real possibility of a water shortage, which could result in an absolute ban on wasting tap water. People who violate these measures could face punishments from a fine to imprisonment.

Concerns increasingly serious

While the extremely low groundwater levels and the drying up of waterways were already a cause for concern two weeks ago, the situation has only worsened since. "Now, since a few days, we are even more worried because of the situation around the Meuse and Albert Canal, which is fed by the Meuse," Huysmans said.

The flow rate of the Meuse, which is one of the most important sources for the supply of tap water in Flanders and also provides water to many businesses along the stream, fell so much in recent days that there is a danger it will go below the critical alarm threshold.

A lock on the Asper where a low flow level of waterways is being recorded. Credit: Belga/James Arthur Gekiere

Huysmans explained this could happen as early as the beginning of September, a scenario which is becoming increasingly plausible as little to no rain is expected across Belgium in the next two weeks.

This situation is very rare. The very serious measures and restrictions that may be coming Flanders' way have not been adopted in the last 20 years; only in 2019 did the region come close to a similar situation. "This makes it clear this is not normal."

She added that it is still unclear whether the region is nearing this danger zone or whether it will find itself in this situation soon, but stressed that these will be a "tense few weeks."

Impact on individuals and businesses

The switch from code green to yellow of the drinking water indicator already highlighted that more caution was needed regarding the use of tap water, but if Flanders enters code red for drought, there will be very big restrictions on the water that we are allowed to withdraw from the Albert Canal.

This will not only affect businesses and the shipping industry, which is already subject to major restrictions but will "naturally also be dangerous for our tap water production."

According to Flemish Environment Agency (VMM) spokesperson Bernard De Potter, there is no reason to panic, as forecasts made by drinking water companies regarding the security of drinking water guaranteed that supplies would last for several weeks.

"These forecasts are now being updated and the expectation is that there will be no problem at all in the short and mid-long term (approximately six to eight weeks)," he told The Brussels Times.

Changing mentality

Despite the region finding itself in this precarious situation for a while now, there are still no restrictions on the use of tap water, which means people can still use it to water gardens or wash cars. "This would be very unwise, but it is not yet forbidden," Huysmans explained.

However, she added that there have been no major spikes in the consumption of tap water, even though this summer was very hot and dry. "This is something we did see in 2020 and 2018, but now we notice that people are increasingly realising that it's not wise to water their lawns. When walking around, this is noticeable, as there are very few green gardens left."

A dry lawn in Flanders. Credit: Belga

De Potter confirmed that water consumption (an important factor during droughts) is below the normal level for this time of year, which means that the current supply available will hold out for longer.

The Drought Commission announced on Thursday that the drink water consumption remains stable and that therefore the security of supply can be guaranteed. "However, the situation remains very serious."

"I think that many people have had a change of mentality and that it does make a difference, as we can counteract the very large peaks in water demand during dry periods," Huysmans said. This is likely due to the fact that there is growing public interest and attention being paid to the ongoing drought.

"But we are seeing that, more and more, the dry periods are returning, and that we have to prepare ourselves better so that we can avoid this panic every year by being more resilient to drought and water scarcity."

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The region's Blue Deal – which aims to combat drought and water scarcity through investments in infrastructure to help rainwater infiltrate better and for the ground to retain more water — has helped the region be better armed against drought than in previous years.

"This is a huge step forward and it is positive that there are large budgets attached to the Blue Deal, but we can see that we are not there yet, and that it needs to be rolled out faster and in more places to make Flanders more resilient," Huysmans concluded.

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