Elephants and brilliant storytelling at farewell symposium

Our water infrastructure is an elephant, says Kala Vairavamoorthy, Executive Director of the International Water Association, at the farewell symposium for KWR’s CEO Wim van Vierssen. It was set up for the long term and it is non-adaptive. Tomas Michel, President of the Board of the Water supply and sanitation Technology Platform, highlights the importance of European collaboration. ‘It gives us better access to research funding.’ During the symposium, held on 21 June and titled Bridging Science to Practice in the Nexus, speakers and panellists agree on one thing: we need to build the bridge to the water-energy-food nexus – with ‘nexus’ standing for an integrated vision of water and water problems.

There is no lengthy career retrospective at this farewell symposium at KWR’s office in Nieuwegein. There is certainly praise for Van Vierssen: he has strongly influenced the conduct of research and the shaping of opinions within the water sector. Before a hall packed with water sector leaders, the speakers and discussion panellists cast an eye on the future of water. Because the question is: How do the partners in the water-energy-food nexus take on the issues in the water sector?

Elephants and storytelling

As the head of the world’s largest network of water professionals, IWA Executive Director Kala Vairavamoorthy is familiar with the challenges. He outlines them in his contribution. He feels for instance that the future lies in open, horizontal innovation. Solutions for problems in the water sector don’t necessarily have to come from the sector itself. He talks about a successful project in Jordan which generates energy and produces artificial fertiliser – water is a by-product.

Our Western systems are elephants, says Vairavamoorthy. The water infrastructure was built to last a long time, it dates from a time when we believed there would always be more than enough water. The choice now is: Will policy-makers opt for the easy solution, and replace the old with the new? Or will they make strategic choices, and build infrastructure that changes the current model? Vairavamoorthy’s prefers the second option, certainly when it comes to developing countries. Because they face the same choice, but can still opt for completely flexible, circular systems: systems that better respond to change.

The President of WssTP, Tomas Michel, also focuses on innovation in his talk. Water systems have to be better and cheaper. But most of all, they have to be smarter if they are to go on satisfying our increasing needs. This means not only making adjustments to the systems, but also to their management, says Michel. But how we relate to water as a society, he argues, is just as important as the technological innovations that follow each other at an ever-faster pace. From this perspective, the water-energy-food nexus is brilliant storytelling. It sets water precisely in the right context, making it tangible. All of a sudden, it actually becomes a matter of energy and food. If there is not enough water, then there is also not enough food and energy for the burgeoning global population.

Market forces

‘Europe is the absolute market leader when it comes to scientific knowledge, but it still hasn’t managed to convert this into leadership,’ says Michel. His organisation, WssTP, connects knowledge institutes, public water organisations and commercial parties within Europe. For him, the translation of knowledge into practice and good collaboration are indeed challenges, but they are also the solution. Michel hopes that European collaboration will lead to a better distribution of available funding. He is an advocate of Living Labs: implementing pilot projects in society to work with end-users to find out what works. This is one means of bridging the gap between knowledge and practice.

Earlier Vairavamoorthy had already touched on the lack of understanding of the ‘earnings model’. He thinks that the academic world still concentrates too much on production numbers and forgets market analysis. He gives the example of a past pilot project for the production of artificial fertiliser, while what actually interested the market was sludge reduction: this is what generated most of the profit; the fertiliser earned a lot less.


Mariëlle van der Zouwen of KWR leads the discussion panel consisting of Annemarie van Wezel (KWR), Wim Drossaert (Dunea), Hans Goossens (De Watergroep), Cees Buisman (Wetsus) and Michiel van Haersma Buma (Allied Waters). KWR’s Van Wezel calls for a clear identity of the parties involved in collaboration in the nexus. Dunea CEO Drossaert sees a role for (big) data in the analysis of the needs of customers. Buisman expects more from ‘complex, natural solutions’ than from technological ones. Scientists need to discuss things with political players, thinks Van Haersma Buma. It starts with content, but it sometimes takes years to modify legislation that is still designed for the old systems. On the question as to whether water utilities will continue to exist in the future, Goossens says that he doesn’t of course know, but he could see a development towards multi-utilities. ‘As long as there is a public entity that provides people with clean drinking water.’


Van Vierssen himself closes the symposium by providing a perspective on the human dimension of innovation in the nexus. In doing so, he looks back briefly on the central question of his career: ‘How can we know so much and yet have so little impact?’ With initiatives like Watershare and Allied Waters, he has worked from KWR on increasing that impact. He proposes that a clan – about 100 to 200 people – is the optimal group size for transition and change. ‘Actually, KWR is a clan.’