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The Netherlands and China work together to improve their wastewater management

Netherlands and China can learn from each other to handle household and livestock wastewater more sensibly. In the FOREWARD project, scientists from Leiden, Wageningen, and China are working together with local partners on feasible solutions that advance the environment, health, and economy.

In the Netherlands, everything around wastewater seems well organized: every household is connected to the sewer system, which channels wastewater to excellent water treatment plants. These plants do their job, but they could be more energy-efficient and use fewer chemicals. From livestock farming in particular, nature suffers additionally from nitrogen-rich effluents.

Rapid Changes in China

The situation in China is very different. The country is changing very rapidly, marked by enormous regional differences. Urban centres are equipped with wastewater treatment facilities, but in remote areas wastewater may directly end up in rivers. Concurrently, there is a surge in large-scale livestock farming. ‘While these rapid developments are not without challenges, they also present an opportunity to innovate and improve’, as explained by project leader Ranran Wang from the Institute of Environmental Sciences (CML). ‘Efforts are being made to pre-emptively address potential wastewater issues – such as the strategic transportation of excess manure from regions of surplus to areas facing a shortage.’

Knowledge of purification techniques...

Despite the differences between China and the Netherlands, they can learn from each other to tackle their wastewater treatment challenges in alignment with the countries’ carbon-neutral goals. Scientists and other stakeholders from both countries will work on this for four years. ‘Scientists from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, for instance, possess extensive knowledge of water purification techniques, like using nature-based solutions (NBS),’ says Arnold Tukker, principal investigator from CML. ‘This might allow the Netherlands to use fewer chemicals, which require a lot of energy to produce.’

Graphic summary of the research project.

…Understanding its environmental impact…

The University of Leiden in the Netherlands holds considerable knowledge in forward-looking environmental impact analysis using so called prospective life cycle assessment (pLCA). Researchers analyse the probable environmental effects a novel technology will have in the future. How many and which raw materials are involved? What energy consumption is required ? How will these develop? Mingming Hu from CML, involved in the modelling integration, adds, ‘There's still much to discover in wastewater management in this regard. Nowadays, we must also consider the fast changing climate and the possible socioeconomic responses to form the technical development.’ This allows the consortium to provide valuable insights to the sustainable wastewater management in China and the Netherlands.

…And taking local conditions into account

Wageningen University adds a spatial aspect to the water quality modelling. Scientists there can map out from a long river which measures will yield the greatest improvements in which place. They do so by taking spatial and socio-economic conditions into account in their models of optimal wastewater management infrastructure and technologies. Wang gives an example: ‘If you prevent pollution upstream, it affects the entire downstream flow of the river.’ Bringing all this knowledge together shows where priorities should be placed to achieve the greatest improvement with the least resources.

The aim is to make a real difference

In this project, scientists collaborate with local partners. Their ambitions go beyond scientific publications. They will also launch an accessible website and a periodic newsletter. Wang: ‘Ecology lecturer Merlijn van Weerd has rich experience in co-creation in both local and international research efforts. He, along with students, will assist us in elucidating the stakeholder relationships, starting with extensively mapping out who all these stakeholders are. Moreover, to enhance the outreach of the novel technologies and modelling tools, the FOREWARD project aims to establish a Stakeholder Platform to reach as many people as possible who can make use of our findings.’

Budget from the China-Netherlands programme 

The Dutch science financier NWO and the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) have a joint research program. Within this framework, four new projects in the field of drinking or wastewater received approval last November. Interdisciplinary consortia involving partners from the private and public sectors are collaborating. 
The FOREWARD project (FORward-looking Explorative modelling framework of WAste water management options for Resilient, sustainable Chinese and Dutch waters) will start in May and will receive € 700,000,- from the Netherlands and a comparable amount from China over four years. The principal indicators are professors Arnold Tukker from Leiden University and Yuming Zheng from CAS, Institute of Urban Environment. 

Text: Rianne Lindhout
Image above article: Pixabay/ClaudiaWollesen

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