With 11,683 km of water courses, almost 0.9 billion cubic metres of underground reserves, and annual rainfall of between 700 mm and 1,400 mm... Wallonia is not short of water! The region is the main water producer for Belgium - a heavy water consumer (700 million cubic metres a year) - which often comes close to the limits of its supply.

In our region, right in the middle of Europe’s industrial heartland, industrial and agricultural activities constantly threaten this “blue gold”. In the beginning of the 1970's the overall state of Europe’s water systems had become a matter of general concern - and naturally became one of the first areas of political action for the - then young - European Union.

Wallonia was just emerging from a long, and painful, industrial crisis and the priority at that time went to restoring both the economy and harmony between the social partners. Until the middle of the 1990's the protection of water resources was not seen as a priority. A few conservation measures were taken, largely as a result of different international agreements. All the time, Walloon shortcomings in terms of water quality management were growing.

By the end of the 1990's the quality of surface water in Wallonia was generally poor to fair. Nitrate levels in underground water exceeded the authorised limits in many places. Less than 30% of urban waste water and sewage was treated.

It was high time to act. The European Union was growing ever more impatient, waiting to have the agreed framework directive transposed into national legislation. Public opinion in Wallonia was becoming alarmed. The debate on water pollution grew, and grew. The bill for putting the situation right was going to be a heavy one - at the time estimated at 200 billion Belgian Francs, almost 5 billion of today’s Euros.

And so it was time to face the music, pick up the bill and find ourselves, together, in one leap among the best in Europe for water quality... Time to reconsider our approach to economic development, to honour our Rio commitments, to bring some of the famous Walloon creativity and ingenuity - which have often worked so well - to bear.

This then was the overall ambience which in 1999 found its voice in the Contract for the Future of Wallonia - a contract which placed sustainable development at the top of our priorities. It was our creativity and ingenuity which marked how we tackled the nitrate problem through a programme for “Sustainable Management of Nitrogen in Agriculture”, or through the mobilisation of Walloon Universities in the PIRENE programme.

This “second wind” is also to be found in the Walloon Programme for the Treatment of Waste Water, in the establishment of a Public Water Management Company (SPGE), in the development of coherent sewage and waste water treatment programme, in the provision of support for individual household waste water treatment systems, in the programme for protecting water collection zones (PDF), or in total water management organised by hydrographic basin. It is also clearly to be seen in the different river contracts or in the Schelldt-Meuse agreements.