'Can we influence our Water Footprint?'
After obtaining his bachelor's degree in Civil Engineering, Bart Treurniet decided to continue in the Civil Engineering & Management master's programme. This programme focuses extensively on both technical and non-technical aspects of planning, design, realisation and maintenance of civil engineering projects and systems. After graduating, he found a job at Royal HaskoningDHV as an Environmental Management Consultant working on energy transition.
What ultimately determined your choice to continue in the Civil Engineering & Management master's programme at UT?
"During my bachelor's programme I found out that of the three components 'construction', 'traffic' and 'water', the water component of civil engineering appealed to me the most. I did think for a while about taking a water-related master's at an other Dutch university, but in the end, the advantage of Twente -being small-scaled- was that it is very easy to take subjects from other disciplines as well, such as rail transport or tender management, so I stayed in Twente."
What attracted you to the specialisation 'Water Engineering & Management'?
"Water shapes us humans, and certainly the Dutch, more than we sometimes realise. And vice versa, people, especially we Dutch, shape how water moves more than we think. I have always wanted to understand how the world around me works. The Netherlands, as a country is for the most part shaped by water. I found that interesting to investigate. I also find it fascinating to see the extent to which people want to subdue the water, control it, or just let it flow freely. In the water world, this is a hot topic; think of Room for the River, in which we dig extra canals and give up polders to give the rivers more room, whereas, in the past, we used to mark off the water in rigid canals. Apparently, these choices can change over time, and I find that interesting.”
What did you find the most interesting subjects during your CEM programme and why are these courses so important for a Civil Engineer?
"The course on 'Water Footprint Assessment' was a great eye-opener for me. It showed me that many water problems often have more to do with economics and policy than with engineering. For example, water scarcity is often the result of excessive water use by the agricultural sector. You can build water reservoirs and dams to solve it technically, but that does not take away the cause of the problem. So it is better to make other policy choices about where to farm.
Another fascinating subject I had was 'Sustainable Transport'. This subject focused on debates about the future of mobility. How can transport become sustainable? What stands in our way? And, what appealed to me the most, how can you ensure that the advantages and disadvantages of sustainable mobility are 'fairly' distributed? And what is fair? Because, of course, it's great if there are subsidies for electric cars. But even with those subsidies, electric cars are beyond the means of many people on this planet. You can promote sustainable public transport and bicycle use, but that's not an option for rural areas where there are hardly any buses and the nearest supermarket is too far to cycle to and get your groceries. I found it interesting to dive into those kinds of trade-offs."
During your graduation project, you focused on (ground) water scarcity. Can you tell us more about this?
"Freshwater is used worldwide for all sorts of processes, such as washing, drinking, watering animals, cooling machines, etc. However, mankind uses most water for watering crops. Water for crops can come directly from rainwater, but also surface water and groundwater. Groundwater reservoirs can be seen as large rain barrels. When it rains, water is added; when you fill your watering can to water your plants, water goes out and your water table drops. If in the long term, more water goes out than comes in, it is unsustainable and has major consequences. It can make things more difficult to use water for crops, which means that harvests are no longer certain. It can cause soil subsidence, salinisation, reduce the amount of groundwater going to streams and rivers,
I researched how much unsustainable groundwater is used worldwide for growing various crops, and how that changes over time. Using crop growth models, the University of Twente had already investigated how much water the agricultural sector gets from green water (water from rainfall) and how much from blue water (from groundwater and surface water combined) to grow various crops. But exactly how much comes from green of blue water has never been clarified before. A crop growth model only calculates how much water is needed for irrigation, but not where it comes from. Therefore I compared the consumption from irrigation with results from a global hydrological model developed at Utrecht University. That model calculates how much water is needed for crops in a slightly different way, but also provides information on how much water is used at a location from surface water and sustainable and unsustainable groundwater. If you combine this information, you know how much (non-sustainable) groundwater is used worldwide for various crops. This showed that on average over 1981-2010, crops consume 47 cubic kilometres per year of unsustainable groundwater, which is 13 IJssel lakes (IJsselmeer = lake in the Netherlands) per year."
Recently world leaders met online during an international climate summit, the Climate Adaptation Summit 2021 (CAS 2021). The aim was finding solutions to adapt to the effects of climate change, such as extreme rainfall, drought, heat and rising sea levels. The solution you obtained from your graduation research may fit in perfectly with this. How can a Civil Engineer have or exert more influence on this?
"In the Netherlands and abroad, climate adaptation is receiving a great deal of attention: How we adapt to the consequences of climate change. This is important, of course, but it means that attention to climate mitigation often gets forgotten: how are we going to ensure that climate change remains within the limits at all? This also applies to water use. Before we concern ourselves with reducing water scarcity through technical gadgets (which undoubtedly work, don't get me wrong), there is still so much to be gained in terms of making choices about where to grow crops. Big (soil) water guzzlers among the plants, such as cotton, should be grown in water-rich areas. That will probably do more to reduce water scarcity than technical gadgets designed to retain water in dry areas for as long as possible, so this water can be used later for cotton export.”
You have a job as Advisor Environmental Management at Royal HaskoningDHV in the Netherlands. With their expertise and passion, they contribute to a better society and improve people's lives with work that is underpinned by sustainable values and objectives. As an Environmental Management Consultant, how do you think you can contribute to this and how can it have an impact on society?
"At the moment, my work as an environmental consultant involves energy transition. Energy regions in the Netherlands have made proposals on how much green energy they want to contribute to the national green energy targets. But whether this green energy is achieved with wind turbines or solar panels, and where it can be fitted into the landscape, are important questions that are close to people's hearts. The technology is there. But the beginning and the end of using technology concerns people who have goals, wishes and interests. My contribution lies in balancing all these factors.”
Let's also talk about your student life at the UT. After all, life does not consist only of studying and doing research.
What was your life like as a student at UT?
"Looking back, my first year as a student was a great deal of hard work for (mainly) mechanical engineering, and discovering all kinds of student antics and get-togethers. I became a member of the study association ConcepT and within this association I was a member of the almanack and foreign travel committee. Later I discovered more and more how you can decide for yourself what you want to do, and how you can help with cool activities for others. I became active in the Christian student association Alpha. I've enjoyed great prayer-and-singing evenings for God, and other singing evenings with a cantus. Enjoyment and doing good for others are closer than you think, especially in your student days. I also worked for a consultancy firm in civil engineering. And I took part in the Batavierenrace (= largest student relay run) several times. When you are so busy, you sometimes reach your limits. That's why I cancelled all my memberships in my final year so that I could decide for myself when I wanted to meet people, instead of my schedule determining my rhythm. I moved to Norway for six months. After that, my schedule became a bit too empty, something about a worldwide pandemic...".