The urban watercycle

Field of activity

The urban watercycle is a conspicuous feature of our society. With its strong fragmentation and regional variations in governance, the water sector affects a large number of organisations. This makes coordination crucial.

But we are usually only aware of it when something goes wrong: the drinking water provision and the discharge and treatment of excess water (rainwater, wastewater) are of very high quality, and are accomplished at a clearly acceptable cost. The urban watercycle was constituted at the beginning of the 20th century, motivated by important concerns about public and environmental health (managing the risks of infection and of chemical substances) and about the controlled discharge of excess (rain)water. These elements also mean that the urban watercycle is a pre-eminently professional field.

Netherlands + Flanders EU
Population (million) 23 515
Water consumption (x109 m3 per year):

·                 Households
·                 Industry (process)
·                 Industry (cooling)





Number of drinking water stations with a capacity above 1000 m3 per day (x1000) 0.3 11
Number of wastewater treatment plants with a capacity over 2000 population equivalent (x1000) 0.6 25
Drinking water distribution network (x106 km) 0.18 3.6
Sewers (x106 km) 0.18 2.2
Share of households connected to sewers and wastewater treatment (%) >95 80
Share of rainwater exclusion in sewer systems (%) 30 <10
Average cost of drinking water supply, wastewater treatment, incl. sewers (€ per person, per year) 230 <200


The urban watercycle serves households via an extensive and intricate network of underground pipes, based on a centralised drinking water supply and a centralised wastewater treatment. Business clients (industry, etc.) can also be connected to it or have their own provision. We shouldn’t take the ‘urban’ characterisation of the watercycle too literally: it refers rather to the entire urban environment, encompassing water supply sources, recreational areas, agriculture and nature. Table 1.1presents some of the key figures of the watercycle in the Netherlands and Flanders, and in the EU.

Water is supremely important all over the world for a number of reasons. The World Economic Forum considers the ‘water crises’ to be one of the three main risks confronting the world in the years ahead.

The urban Watercycle.

The urban Watercycle.

Research and innovation

At KWH, research, innovation and the valorisation of knowledge related to the urban watercycle are central. We see the urban watercycle within a broad societal context, that is, within the Water-Energy-Food nexus. The circular economy, health for people and the environment, biodiversity and citizen involvement are key concepts in many of our new initiatives. In response to all these developments, KWH focuses its research and innovation on the connection between technical and social governance issues. This reflects our desire to contribute to further improving the urban watercycle, both at home and abroad.

Societal impact

What is the significance of KWH’s activities for our society and for the environment? This question connects to a broader emerging development, namely, that of the analysis of the impact. In the world of business, measurements are made along several axes; besides the financial factors, these are referred to as ‘ESG’: Environmental, Social, Governance factors. With regard to knowledge organisations, specific criteria have been developed  aimed at monitoring how they serve public and private objectives. We are developing a tailored methodology aimed at systematically reporting on the impact of our activities.