Six thoughts from Amsterdam International Water Week

Published November 2nd, 2017

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Insight from Christopher Gasson, GWI publisher

1) Floods are the new droughts: Five years ago, the big conversation around water was about scarcity. It reflected a broader vision of the world in which growing the economy in the face of resource constraints (as evidenced by $100-a-barrel oil) was the central challenge. Today when people talk about climate change, it is the flooding side of extreme weather that gets all the attention. It is going to drive a whole new market for solutions.

2) Utilities are redefining themselves: Unlike Tolstoy’s families, unhappy utilities are all unhappy in the same way. They are under-resourced, over-politicised, and so busy just keeping up with their decaying systems they can never plan. Happy utilities, by contrast, are each brilliant in their own way. The high point of the week for me was seeing another five utilities inducted into our Leading Utilities of the World initiative, and it was interesting to see how far from the basic model of running water and wastewater networks they have come. Hamburg Wasser, for example, is committed to becoming energy-positive, and in pursuit of that has started to supply district heating from its sewer network. Brian Hansen from Hofor in Copenhagen described how his utility had worked largely underground and out of sight until taking on a commitment to ensure that no flood would leave more than 10cm of standing water around the city. Suddenly he was redesigning the city in a very public way.

3) Reuse is king: One of the surprising things about AIWW was that no one was talking about either water or wastewater treatment. I am not sure whether this is because it was a bit more of a high-level event and people wanted to talk strategies rather than technologies, or whether there is an overwhelming momentum behind reuse, but support for potable reuse seems to be almost universal now.

4) The circular economy has a golden triangle: The area of northern Europe between Amsterdam in the west, Copenhagen in the north and Frankfurt in the south is rising as the heartland of the circular economy. The combination of an industrial base which sees the opportunity in the value-from-waste proposition, forward-looking public utilities, restrictions on landfill, high energy prices, and a respect for environmental regulation is creating the conditions for a new industrial cluster.

5) If water is unaffordable, you’re not doing it right: The Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte opened AIWW, and hung around afterwards for a private meeting with selected delegates to discuss ideas which he might feed into the UN High Level Panel on Water, of which he is a member. Pricing and the “value of water” are key themes for the panel, but members are struggling to articulate a statement about this which goes beyond a platitude. My feeling is that the problem is not that people don’t value water – everyone does: those living on a dollar a day more so than anyone else. Nor is it that people can’t afford water. There are successful utilities around the world which have made water affordable to the very poorest in the communities they serve. The difference is that these successful utilities generally have a workable business model to deliver water services to the poor and invest in customer outreach to ensure that this business model has the support of those who most need it. My message to the High Level Panel on Water was that it should require governments to be transparent about the business model through which they intend to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals for water and sanitation.

6) Big companies are not necessarily big on trade shows: The Aquatech tradeshow which ran alongside AIWW was pretty busy, but it was notable for the shrinking support it attracted from the major players. Suez had no visible presence. Xylem managed two chairs and a table. Veolia Water Technologies’ presence was restricted to four chairs and a table under the Biothane banner. It is difficult to say whether this is because Aquatech is losing ground to IFAT in Munich, or because there are just too many trade shows in general, and the big players are concentrating their resources on the events which are most aligned with their objectives. Alternatively, it might be that the trade show format is losing ground to online contact and private events organised by companies for their agents and customers. That said, the exhibitors I spoke to were very happy with the business they attracted at the show: perhaps these things are most effective for mid-size players wanting to make a statement. The company that seemed to be wanting to make the biggest splash was residential and small industrial systems specialist Pollet Water, which had the most acreage on the main show floor.