The Water-Saving DJ of Brussels
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because sometimes there's a simple solution to a crisis.
The idea came to Yoeri Bellemans in the very hot, very dry summer of 2018. Belgian news outlets had been warning of an imminent water shortage, and officials had issued a code yellow in the most drought-affected parts of the country, meaning citizens should do everything they could to use as little water as possible.
So when Bellemans, 37, came across a construction site in Brussels, Belgium’s capital, and saw an installation pumping up gallons of water, which then gushed into a sewer drain, he wondered whether it’d be possible to put this water to better use.
Together with local building developers and water companies, Bellemans is plotting to build a digital platform that will connect city agencies in need of water with construction sites with water on offer. Groundwater is pumped up on most construction sites — a process called dewatering — so its upward pressure doesn’t compromise a building’s stability. This water is not drinkable, but it can be used to water plants, hose down public squares and sweep streets. In Brussels, that is all currently being done with fresh, clean drinking water.
We all need to use water more rationally.
The app Bellemans aims to build would offer city crews a real-time overview of active pump installations in the capital and direct them to the nearest construction site, where they would be able to fill up the tanks of their street sweepers.
According to Bellemans, Brussels construction sites tend to have pumping installations with a capacity ranging from 6 cubic meters (1,585 U.S. gallons) to 1,000 cubic meters (264,172 U.S. gallons) per day. “That’s 1 million liters of water being pumped up every day and being discharged into sewage,” he says. Documentation he requested from city officials showed that 20 pumping installations were active at construction sites in the summer of 2018. “And some pumping installations run for 12 to 18 months,” he says.
If Bellemans succeeds in his plan, his solution would save tens of thousands of gallons of water per day in Brussels alone. And it could easily be replicated in other cities across Europe, he says. Officials and building developers in the Belgian towns of Hasselt, Leuven and Antwerp have already reached out.
Brussels, like many cities in industrialized nations, has had to contend with severe water shortages due to its increasingly hot and dry summer months. This means that beyond saving lots of water year-round, Bellemans’ idea also has the potential to put a sizable dent in this summertime drought problem.
That isn’t his aim, though. He simply wants city services and construction companies to be smarter about water. “We all need to use water more rationally — both the city services of every municipality in the capital that are using fresh drinking water to clean streets, but also the construction companies who pump up water and divert it into sewage, but then flush the toilets in their work sheds with drinking water.”
Opensource.brussels, the nonprofit Bellemans founded together with two other volunteers in 2018, has received backing from two of Belgium’s largest construction companies — Democo and Van Laere — as well as from the city agency responsible for the capital’s cleanliness. They’ve also conducted two successful test runs with a dozen city agencies.
No one knows exactly how much clean water city agencies are currently using to sweep streets and to water municipal flower gardens. Figures from the city’s water agency show that municipal agencies and firefighters, along with water thefts and leaks, guzzle up 8.7 million cubic meters (2.3 billion U.S. gallons) annually.
But Imeshi Weerasinghe, a Brussels-based water specialist, says Bellemans’ project overlooks the source of the problem. “I do believe every little bit helps, but the biggest user of our freshwater resources is not drinking water at all; it’s agriculture,” she says. “It’s actually about 70 percent that agriculture uses of our global freshwater resources.” For Weerasinghe, it would make more sense if Bellemans retooled the idea to distribute the construction water to farmers.
But Bellemans points out that people driving long distances to rural farms for water “would be doing worse for the environment. In cities you’ve got constant construction going on, and so you’ll always have a network of construction sites pumping up water and making that water available to the users who need water in the city.”
Bellemans grew up in Halle, a commuter town situated 12 miles from Brussels. Although he studied educational sciences, he quickly started working in sustainable development and entrepreneurship after graduation, eventually getting involved with and now managing a citizens’ initiative that’s planted more than 3,000 trees across the city.
Since 2000, Bellemans has also made up half of a DJ duo called Onda Sonora, a fixture of the Brussels music scene, with two shows on local radio stations featuring his mix of soul, funk, disco, boogie, house and bass. It gives him more creative freedom than sustainability and entrepreneurship.
“He made a conscious choice not to spend his life doing a job that might pay the bills, but doesn’t fully mesh with his interests and values,” says Marc De Witte, board chairman of No Way Back, the umbrella nonprofit that oversees opensource.brussels and the tree-planting initiative. He’s known Bellemans for 20 years, ever since he started dating De Witte’s daughter as a teenager. “He’s someone who really wants to make this a more livable world and who’s very focused on community building, and he’s made corresponding private and professional choices.”
Although they’ve gotten financial pledges from private companies who believe in the project, Bellemans instead applied for a government grant last year. He wants city officials to fund the app’s development, which he estimates will take three years and tens of thousands of euros. “The government carries a huge responsibility in this,” so they should also foot the bill, he says.
Since launching the project, Bellemans has been interviewed countless times by local media, and he seems to have picked up how to speak to journalists. He’s casual and friendly, but also reserved, guarded almost. Instead of making lofty statements about the potential of the app, he insists on facts and numbers, always giving short, pragmatic answers.
When I ask him if there’s anything else he wants to tell me that’s important, he thinks about the question. Then, in a matter-of-fact tone, he replies: “If people have questions, they can always contact me. I’m happy to give them more explanations.”