The Flemish Coastal area needs ‘Climate Robust’ Water Management

15 February 2019 - Published by Dorte Storper
This was stated by the governor of the province of West-Flanders, when addressing the provincial council, the provincial executives and various stakeholders of the province of West-Flanders

How to catch a monkey? It is very simple: merely shove a banana into an amphora. The monkey will reach into the amphora and grab the banana. The monkey now has a yummy banana, but in return he lost his freedom. The monkey wants to retrieve his arm from the amphora but it is stuck at the narrow opening since his hand tightly holds onto the sweet fruit. All the monkey has to do in order to be free is  simply let go of the banana. But he can’t let go because he is too focused on getting a banana. He can’t see that the small gain doesn’t outweigh the big cost.

With these words Carl Decaluwé, the governor of the province of West-Flanders, kicked-off his speech ‘Het broodnodige water’ [the indispensable water in English], which he held on 6 December 2018 at the provincial palace in Bruges (Belgium). Annually the governor addresses the provincial council, the provincial executives and various stakeholders of the province of West-Flanders. This year the governor used the occasion to highlight the need to adapt the water system of the province, and the low-lying coastal area in particular. That water system faces the increasing occurrence of floods and water shortages, the result of climate change. In short, the province is in need for a ‘climate robust’ water system. In particular, the governor stressed that the great impact of drought can no longer be overlooked, as he referred to his interventions in the dry summers of 2017 and 2018. At those times, the governor had to, for example, issue restrictions on the use of surface water for agricultural irrigation. Moreover, the governor stressed that such droughts induce salinization of the local coastal areas. In dry periods water managers measure an electrical conductivity [an indicator for the water’s salt content] from 5.000 up to 7.000 µS/cm in the surface waters of the coastal area. This saline water is not suitable for the irrigation of agricultural crops nor for the farmers’ livestock.


A re-evaluation of local water management is needed

So how do we adapt to the aggravating salinization that results from climate change? According to the governor this will first and foremost require the re-evaluation of local water management. Today water managers apply a fixed target water level in winter and summer. This fixed water level aims to provide maximum support for the local agricultural land uses. For example, in winter a low water level is applied in order to enable the employment of heavy machinery for tillage. In the future, however, the governor envisages a flexible water level in order to increase the subsoil freshwater provisions. On the other hand, the governor encourages all research on saline farming, including the Interreg North Sea Region project SalFar. He supports the further development of knowledge on and capacity building for saline farming. The governor asks for the saline farming strategy to be further explored since a sustainable strategy to adapt agriculture to salinization on the long-term.

Photo credits: © Provincie West-Vlaanderen - Jan Baillieu'