Wallonia water company SWDE has a massive investment plan to upgrade its network and adapt to climate change

It rains an average of 190 days a year in Belgium but for the country’s thirsty households, farms and industries, that’s simply not enough. Residents might feel “water stressed” by the drizzle, but the country faces real water stress – meaning that it withdraws over 80% of its available water each year, a level that earns it a higher place in the World Resources Institute’s ranking of water-stressed countries than Namibia.

Wallonia is home to over 3.5 million people and covers an area of 16 844 square kilometres. With a per capita income lower than the EU average, many parts of Wallonia are considered to be “cohesion” regions entitled to extra funding from the European Union. The region is characterized by its diverse landscape, which includes the Ardennes, a vast forested plateau, and the Meuse River, one of Europe's major waterways. Despite its abundant natural resources, climate change, population growth, and industrial development have put immense pressure on the region's water supply. Last summer, when the region experienced its driest summer in 20 years, the taps went dry in several towns and villages and water had to be distributed by trucks.

Climate change means that extreme weather events in the region are only likely to become more frequent. Floods in July 2021 killed 39 people, damaged 48 000 buildings, 11 000 cars, and cost the region of Wallonia €2.8 billion. According to a recent article in the scientific journal Nature, Belgium, along with the Netherlands and Germany, is among the countries most statistically at risk from record heatwaves. Another study, by the University of Liège, reckons that Wallonia could face a water deficit of up to 30% by 2050, if no action is taken.

Part of the problem is the challenge of transporting water from areas where it is plentiful to areas affected by drought. “There are no national water networks, in general,” explains Marco Beroš, a senior water expert at the European Investment Bank. “Water isn’t like electricity or gas. Of course, you can convey water over long distances but it’s not good for drinking water quality. Besides, it requires a huge amount of energy to transport all this water (1,000 litres weigh one ton!), unless you build gravity aqueducts as the Romans did. In Belgium, Wallonia traditionally supplies water to Brussels through long-distance pipes from the Ardennes but the country is a patchwork of local and regional networks.”

The region’s largest water company, Société Wallonne des Eaux (SWDE), is well aware of the challenges. The company supplies drinking water to 2.5 million mainly rural inhabitants through just over 1 million connections in 190 municipalities across a 40 000 km pipe network. To put this into perspective, SWDE’s network is about 30 times longer than that of the city of Paris, which has a similar population.

A massive investment plan

To ensure adequate water supply, the company is undertaking a massive investment plan to upgrade its network, improve connectivity between different municipal networks, and adapt to Belgium’s changing climate. Measures include increasing water storage capacity, improving water efficiency, enhancing water quality, and strengthening flood resilience. These actions aim to address the impacts of climate change on water availability, quality, and infrastructure.

“We produce over 1.6 million cubic metres of drinking water a year, but this consumes 100 GWh a year,” says Bernard Pevee, an energy expert at SWDE. “We want to bring down our energy costs to ensure that water remain affordable for everyone and to cut our own greenhouse gas emissions by 20% by 2030.”

To meet this target, SWDE is looking to invest in additional solar power panels and purchase power agreements with wind farms. It is also looking to greatly improve its energy efficiency. “We are auditing every pumping station and have an action plan with several ideas to decrease consumption and improve efficiency,” says Pevee. All in all, the company has some 150 investment lines to improve efficiency, including new equipment and better ways to produce or treat water.

Reducing its energy consumption and emissions are just parts of the water company’s environmental strategy. “There are three pillars to the strategy,” says Xavier Giltay, environment director at SWDE. “Raising awareness, reducing our environmental footprint, and adapting to climate change.”

Protecting biodiversity also features strongly. “We want to develop a biodiversity policy for all out sites,” says Giltay. “We have about 1 000 locations and are working with the region’s forestry and nature department on a range of projects to protect biodiversity and see how it can also help us to reduce our carbon footprint.”

To finance its ambitious investment and climate plans, SWDE has turned to its long-term partner, the European Investment Bank for support. In 2022, the company signed a €250 million loan for its 2022-2026 investment programme.

The loan is the fourth from the Bank in 16 years. Since a previous €200 million European Investment Bank loan was granted in November 2016, SWDE has invested an average of €120 million a year without raising its prices for consumers.

The EU bank’s loan will support the company in a range of projects aimed at improving the resilience of Wallonia's water infrastructure, including the construction of new reservoirs, the modernization of water treatment plants, advanced leak detection technologies, and the expansion of sewer networks.