IWA and the global water opportunity

The late US President John F Kennedy is quoted as saying that, “when written in Chinese, the word ‘crisis’ is composed of two characters. One represents danger and the other represents opportunity.”

I love the juxtaposition inherent in this observation, and the optimism and inspiration it represents. All of us know well that we are confronted with challenging times. The question that each of us faces is ‘how will I personally respond?’ The same question can be posed for an organisation. How will IWA respond to the changing world around us? Fortunately, as I take on the IWA Presidency, I know that IWA is well placed to meet the challenges. It is an association that is not just in good shape – it is in great shape. It is driven by a compelling vision, committed membership, and skilled staff, and is financially sound. IWA is an organisation well placed to prosper and grow.

The why, how and what

The compelling vision – WHY we exist – is self-evident to us as water professionals; the world’s water challenges are immense, and they are existential: more than 2 billion people without access to safe drinking water and 4.5 billion without access to sanitation; water security threatened because of over-abstraction, increasing urbanisation, growth in demand, pollution and territorial tensions; all compounded by the accelerating impacts of climate change. It is hard to think of a stronger rallying cry.

“President Kennedy may not have been strictly accurate, but he knew how to inspire”

HOW we approach our task is where our values – the IWA DNA – shine through. As more and more people see an increasingly daunting future of scarcity and stress, IWA will grow more relevant as the place where innovative solutions are found. We encourage open dialogue and collaboration, share the best evidence and outcomes from around the world, and connect a broad community of water professionals and organisations. IWA draws on public utilities, the private sector, research, academia, and policy makers. And we are inclusive, promoting and encouraging language, age, and gender diversity. We inspire change.

Over the coming years, there must be a change in WHAT we do. 2020 was a rude shock to organisations around the world and my most urgent task as President will be to see that IWA is able to pivot its business model to secure its position as the global network for water professionals. While we all crave a return to more face-to-face contact, we know that ‘normal’ will be different because of financial, travel and public health limitations – and because we have experienced ways of doing business and collaborating that are more efficient and effective.

Digital opportunities

An early response to this changing ‘meeting’ environment has been the adoption of online ‘virtual’ conferences and meetings. This culminated some weeks ago in the first IWA Digital World Water Congress. I was pleased to be able to speak to more than 2,200 delegates by video link, and to present several very important IWA Awards to some inspiring and talented individuals. The Digital Congress gave us a chance to test new technologies and approaches, and to reach many water professionals who have been limited in their ability to participate in our face-to-face biennial Congress, particularly those in low- and middle-income countries. Expanding and adapting the IWA digital offering must be a core part of our value proposition in the future, irrespective of the COVID-19 trajectory.

I am also committed to enhancing the quality of engagement with our members and the ways that we support them. The successful introduction of our Membership Management System will be fundamental to this. So too will be working with our Governing Members, existing and new, to better enable them to deliver local IWA initiatives and membership growth. We have made excellent advances in recent times with new Governing Members in Latin America and South Asia, and have a willing partner in Africa with AfWA, all of whom deserve our attention. The success of the move by IWA Publishing from the historic subscription model to Open Access will also be a key part of growing the impact and reach of our journals.

“The water issues confronting the globe will require a solid connection between science and policy”

I am also eager for IWA to enhance its policy leadership role globally, cultivating constructive conversations and engaging with communities, other disciplines, and policy makers to achieve better water outcomes. The water issues confronting the globe will require a solid connection between science and policy – of evidence-based decision making – if we are to be effective.

There are many additional programmes and initiatives where IWA has already made significant advances, and which it will drive further: we will continue serving our core constituencies in water science, technology and practice; encourage the energy and enthusiasm of our Young Water Professionals; and strengthen our utilities programme. We will pursue a strong practical programme supporting the Sustainable Development Goals, and in 2022, in partnership with our Danish hosts, we will deliver the best World Water Congress and Exhibition ever in Copenhagen.

I mentioned that IWA is an organisation in great shape. I wish to acknowledge the role played by the Immediate Past President, Diane d’Arras, who has been calm, considered, committed and courageous. Having served with Diane on the IWA Board for several years, including as Vice-President, I have no doubt that IWA is a stronger and better association because of her leadership. Thank you, Diane.

When researching the opening quote from JFK, I learned that a more accurate interpretation of the Chinese symbol for ‘crisis’ is that it represents both ‘danger’ and, not ‘opportunity’, but ‘a crucial point, when something begins to change’. President Kennedy may not have been strictly accurate, but he knew how to inspire.

It occurs to me that we at IWA have much to do, but we also have the passion and the skills to do it. I look forward to working with the IWA community and our global partners to achieve our vision of a world in which water is wisely, sustainably and equitably managed. Confronted with our current ‘challenging times’, I am excited and energised by the opportunity.

Tom Mollenkopf, President, IWA