Time to embrace your inner water steward?

Pernille Ingildsen

Water professionals struggling with the day-to-day realities of their work can regain their spark by embracing water stewardship, writes Pernille Ingildsen, author of a new book from IWA Publishing.


At one point, you have to ask yourself: why am I doing this?

I reached that point some five years ago.

As is the case for many people working professionally with water engineering, the journey started with a wish to contribute towards some higher goals for alleviating human suffering and improving upon the havoc humanity has inflicted on nature. But here in the midst of my career, the daily work life looked different to the hopes and imagination of my youth: conflicts with under-performing contractors and consultants; internal fights over costs exceeding budgets; administrative obstacles; counterproductive political inputs; and so on. All ‘the usual’ commotion around the actual work with water.

As for the water, it had become a resource to be calculated in Excel sheets; it had become about digging pipelines into the sides of roads; it had become about ensuring plentiful and undisturbed supply to customers. Somehow, the conflicts and the practical success criteria had gutted the water work of its poetry. At the same time, the discussion about a sustainable future was, and is, racing around us – putting us in the front line of creating that future.

The situation I found myself in – and I think a lot of water professionals find themselves in, consciously or subconsciously – was profoundly unsustainable. Unsustainable for the individual, the organisation (utilities, consulting companies, contractors, suppliers), and for the society for which the water industry carries a responsibility.

At that point, I started to write a book that has become Water Stewardship. I was not in the process of leaving the water sector, but I did have a profound feeling that I had lost my way and that I needed to find new meaning, direction, purpose, vision, balance, integrity, vitality, and poetry again. I wanted to see and understand my job for what it was deep down in its core essence and simultaneously grasp its ‘highest potential’.

I discussed my contemplations and worries with my two mentors: Professor Gustaf Olsson, with whom I had studied for my PhD at Lund University, and Tina Monberg who, during the previous years, had been my mentor in my leadership role. The problem I explained to them resonated deeply with both and they proposed to support me in the roles of two wise guides on the book journey. And they have generously and lovingly done so all the way. I mention this, both to honour their contribution and to emphasise that a water stewardship future is also fundamentally about mutual support.

Today, after having rewritten the manuscript at least 20 times, I see my water work in a quite different light than at the beginning. I am grounded, I stand in full height, and I am clear in my vision about what kind of future ’water world’ I want to contribute to.

This elusive thing of having a vision for a good future is often difficult to describe. What seems to work to that end is to establish a number of lighthouses in the form of core ideas that can establish an internalised sense of what Aristotle would have called the ‘truth, beauty and goodness’ of the ideal.

If I were to point at three key insights, or three lighthouses, it would be the following.


Maturation is a change process that drives the individual, the society, the group, or the system from one state to a more advanced, integrated and embracing state. This to me is the essence of water stewardship. It is a conversion process in which we change from being water professionals to water stewards. The process is not a goodbye to everything we are as water professionals, but a transformation that brings what we are into a new light and a new league. It is a step forward that we must take for a number of different reasons – reasons that seem to converge in these times.

The unsustainability crisis we find ourselves amid is the loudest reason for the change. Though the ‘noise’ today is primarily on climate change, a similar dramatic story can be told about water, since water certainly is a primary indicator of climate change. And our dependence on water as a fundamental element for life on so many levels and in every cranny of the world can hardly be overestimated.

Hence, we need to ‘step-up’ or ‘step into character’, as the Danish philosopher Kierkegaard would put it. What he meant was that we must do what we know we must do.

So, there is this outer imperative driving us. But at the same time – for so many of us, water professionals – there is an inner imperative as well. There is something in us that wants to come to fruition: an inner potential that we urge to live. There is a special heartfelt reason for which we joined the water society in the first place. But even if these inner and outer forces urge us to transform, we have difficulties in finding out how. The world is complex, noisy, and changing at a confusingly high speed.

Establishing new practices

Therefore, we need to contemplate our currently ingrained practices. And we need to change most of them into new and markedly better practices.

We need in these new practices to consider three spheres: oneself (rationale, emotions and actions); the local area in which one lives (its state, its potential and my ties to the place); and the earth system (a broad solidarity with every living being).

To have these three perspectives clear in mind in all we do ensures a much more balanced approach to the required changes. A key process in this ‘game’ of upgrading both our personal practices and our common water engineering practices is a moving back and forth between reflection on the past and the future on one hand and, on the other hand, of implementing the new insights gained from that.

After the point of establishing ‘water professionalism’, I don’t believe so much in the idea of ‘best practices’ as a vehicle for further improvement. The journey ahead towards water stewardship requires a more experimental and learning approach – sometimes even a departure from what was earlier believed to be ‘best practice’. To make oneself ‘sensitive enough’ to ‘read the reflections’ of both past and future actions requires the change of our common engineering practices to be supplemented by a diligent and disciplined change in our personal practices.

Poetry and water

Sometimes, sustainability is perceived as grey austerity – sorting garbage and eating oatmeal – that is not the world we want to create. It is not a world of a ‘return to the Stone Age’ either.

To deeply appreciate that the time we find ourselves in is a time of high volatility, where we can all make the change towards ‘a new world’, is almost mind-blowing. Our individual contributions may be small, but carried out together something new will emerge that nobody could foresee.

To foster a reverent, respectful and poetic approach is a key guideline and wake-up call whenever we revert to ‘easy fixes’ and old practices. Instead, we must attempt to turn our contribution to change into a poetic change. Let it be kind and gentle. Let it be valiant and effective. Let it be generous and embracing. Feed that inner drive towards a more poetic future for water. Not for any other reason than poetry itself.

This is what we want to give to the world, and this is what the world wants to receive – the world of today and the world of our future generations.


What does it mean to be a water steward?

Is a water steward someone who knows the technologies and analytical methods that can solve difficult water problems? Or is a water steward a poet, who sees possibilities for beauty? Or is it both of these things, and many others besides?

You can find the answer to this in the final chapter of Water Stewardship, the new book by Pernille Ingildsen, published by IWA Publishing. It is available free as an open access ebook, and to purchase as a hard copy.

The book explores the need for individuals – water professionals in particular – to form a new perspective on water. It sets out models and potential frameworks to underpin this. It challenges the reader on aspects such as blind spots around sustainability and the polluter pays principle, and leads the reader to envisioning a water future in which they play a fuller and more fulfilling role as a water steward.

For more details, see:



The author

Dr Pernille Ingildsen is Manager of the Project Department, Hillerod Utility, Denmark, and was recently appointed co-Editor in Chief for the IWA Publishing journal AQUA. Previous books include co-authoring Smart Water Utilities ñ Complexity Made Simple with Professor Gustaf Olsson in 2016, also published by IWA Publishing.