Flanders, the Dutch-speaking northern region in Belgium, is kick starting an intelligent water management system based on a network of connected sensors which is being coined as the internet of Water. Developed by Imec, these networked sensors will enable real-time information of water quality and water quantity, which could allow Flanders to address the risks of water inconvenience, water scarcity and water pollution it is facing.

“This dense sensor network will provide much more insight into water quality such that users can anticipate the possible consequences of, for instance, a drought, which is now severe in West-Flanders,” said Marcel Zevenbergen, project leader at imec. “The massive amount of data will constantly improve the self-learning algorithms such that more effective water management can be achieved, despite the more erratic rainfall due to climate change.”

Recently, Flanders’ Minister-President Geert Bourgeois activated the first sensor near The Blankaart in Diksmuide. Imec’s sensor will have the ability to measure acidity and conductivity, while quantifying dissolved substances in water. While this sensor took years to create, there were many weathering challenges they encountered.

“Sensors immersed in water are always subjected to possible fouling and drift,” said Zevenbergen. “The biggest challenge was to miniaturize the sensor to 1 cm2 while not giving in on performance. “

Flanders hopes to use these sensors and interconnected water map to roll-out a large-scale permanent sensor network that can plot water reserves and monitor water demand continuously.

The network will consist of more than 1,000 wireless low-power sensors that will monitor the quality of soil water, groundwater, surface water and purified sewage water.

The pilot project’s first experiments will examine how measurements can be done with precision, explore the challenges of guaranteeing a reliable broad network and determine how to visualize data while making it available for the public.

The five companies and research institutions ―VITO, De Watergoep, Aquafin, imec and Vlakwa—hope to turn Flanders into an international runner in smart water management with digital technology and innovative software.

“Innovative self-learning algorithms will process the large amounts of data from the sensors for the permanent and real-time monitoring of water quality and quantity, and also feed the models that predict future evolutions,” said Piet Seuntjens, Innovation Manager at VITO. “Through the VITO dashboards, users will be connected directly to the ‘Water brain’ for optimum use of available water.”

 This would allow Flanders to better respond to strong showers and periods of drought since water scarcity and water inconvenience seem to live permanently in Flanders. They hope this integrated smart water map will have value in numerous applications such as water connected transport, agriculture, nature, living and drinking water. 

“Our water is scarce and needs to be treated in a sustainable way,” said Flanders’ Minister-President Geert Bougeois. “An efficient water management is necessary so that all users in Flanders can count on sufficient water supply.”

Although the internet of Water is just breaking the surface in Flanders, there are many possibilities for the future of these sensors.

“We are constantly adding more functionality to the sensors; in this pilot we are focusing on the effects of salination of surface water by measuring specific salts,” said Zevenbergen. “I foresee that in the future other pollutants can be monitored as well, like heavy metals or pesticides. Information on water quality should be in reach for everyone.”

Using sensors to monitor Flander's water supply.