04 June 2023 / Vienna, Austria
A Proud Look Back, Bold Looks Forward – and an All-Time Record: This was the 2023 Danube Water Conference
Contributed by:
Voice of the Danube
04 June 2023

Vienna, 31 May – 2 June: A record-sized audience gathered for the 2023 Danube Water Conference, with multiple challenges to discuss, encouraging numbers of young faces in the crowd, and two unlikely birthdays to celebrate.

“When we finally looked up, thirty years had passed in a flash”, remarked IAWD President Walter Kling during the 2023 Danube Water Conference opening session, ending a short presentation on the history of IAWD and the Danube Water Program. Indeed - who would have thought back 1993 that an ever growing demand for networking, cooperation and mutual support would keep this community going, growing and thriving over a solid three decades? And who would have thought that the Danube Water Program, founded initially as a limited three-year activity, would see its tenth birthday during a fourth program phase?

Yet here we were, and we were many - a record-setting 180+ participants from national and local governments, regulatory agencies, water utilities and professional associations in 23 countries. "Here" was the shiny conference venue at the Austrian Federal Academy of Finance, perfectly sized and equipped, in close vicinity of Vienna's main station public transport hub, and one of the Austrian Federal Ministry of Finance's very valuable contribution to the event's success. Verena Hagg, Deputy Director for International Financial Institutions at the Ministry, reminded the audience in her welcome address that the Danube Water Program with its proud record of achievements is among the longest standing cooperations between the Ministry of Finance and the World Bank, and wished IAWD and DWP “Happy Birthday.”

Not everything was about birthday and cake though. “Navigating Changing Waters” was the title of the conference, and more than one speaker remarked how apt and up to date a choice this was, with multiple crises hitting the water sector, and more to come in the foreseeable future.

In his opening keynote, World Bank Lead Water and Sanitation Specialist Gustavo Saltiel stated the plain fact that the world is about to miss out on UN Sustainable Development Goal 6, that in many countries and regions, the water sector is on a slippery slope, and that, all in all, the worldwide investment volume needs to increase by a factor 5 to 6 to cover a rapidly growing demand for water and sanitation.

But it was not all downhill from there, on the contrary: With its general focus on the multiple current and future challenges for the sector, including economic turbulences, climate change-related risks, aging workforces and lackluster public support, the conference offered not only worrying diagnoses, but also encouraging perspectives for remedies.

The good news takeaways ranged from the introduction of the “Utility of the Future Centre of Excellence” to a whole crowd of Young Water Professionals who supported the event organization with a huge amount of enthusiasm – some reason to believe that the ongoing generation change will be smoother than expected.

Which is an encouraging perspective for a sector that wrestles with workforce problems: In a comment during the HR-focused session „The Hidden Figures“, Vesna Music, President of the Aquasan Network in Bosnia and Herzegovina, reminded the audience: „Infrastructural investments are a waste of money without also developing capacity. Only skilled people can make this sector perform well and make the most of available resources - and that includes decision-makers in national and local governments." 

Young Water Professional Jakub Sochor, a master student from the Czech Republic, loved the spirit of this first Danube Water Conference he attended: “Everybody is enthusiastic about improving things in the sector, and the networking opportunities are awesome – you meet people from every level and from everywhere in the world, and for Young Water Professionals as a whole it is great to be part of this.”

World Bank´s Camilo Lombana's presentation on the Utility of the Future program, the World Bank's conceptual framework that is already running in 87 utilities in 33 countries, included important news for the Danube region: The Program's Center of Excellence (CoE) will be located in Tirana, Albania, and 50 utilities from Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia will be invited to join the program in the CoE's pioneering phase.

In addition to altogether five theme sessions focusing on themes like answers to economic challenges, water security in the face of climate change, perspectives for HR in aging societies, and communication within the sector and beyond, the organizers created ample room for lively exchanges of ideas and opinions. A poster breakfast on Friday morning put latest research and innovative ideas on display and invited discussions over a nice cup of coffee, and the Thursday afternoon session, titled “Think Outside the Box”, was held in a very productive format, splitting the audience into panel groups to explore conference themes in independent discussions – a format that was very well received and tuned out interesting results.

Jens Liebelt of the Vienna-based Consultant Hydrophil, a long-standing member and partner of IAWD and the Danube Water Program, found the theme mix and the conference in general very appealing. Having joined the company only lately, he attended the Danube Water Conference for the first time: “It is great to be here. Very interesting themes, very interesting people on the podium, and very interesting talks in between.”

Eventually, everything was about Birthday and cake during Thursday evening's conference dinner event, which was fittingly held on a riverboat cruising the Danube around Vienna. Here, the double Birthday celebration of IAWD and the DWP took place, complete with honors for the founding members. It was a memorable highlight of a memorable conference.

Marco Antonio Aguero, Senior Water and Sanitation Specialist and NewIBNET Coordinator at the World Bank, also a first-time attendee, appreciated the conference and the IAWD in general: “This is an excellent platform. The IAWD does an exceptional job bringing everyone together to discuss the issues that are really important for the sector.”

The conference ended Friday noon with a comprehensive wrap-up, leaving everybody slightly tired, sometimes a bit overwhelmed, but generally highly motivated, and as IAWD President Walter King remarked, “really looking forward to the next 30 years.”  

Picture credit: Wiener Wasser/Wieser

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