Reflections on the Future of Water Quality and Health Research

First impressions as an IWA rookie

On 10 September 2022, I travelled by train to the IWA World Water Congress & Exhibition in Copenhagen while meeting other KWR colleagues on my way. The size of the congress and exhibition was quite overwhelming for me, it being the first time that I took part in an IWA event. Besides the ‘usual’ water sector topics, themes on ‘Young Water Professionals’ engagement were a buzz. I would like to share some highlights and key lessons that have enriched my perspective on a topic of focus for me at KWR: water quality and health.

The subjects covered within the Congress are as broad as the Congress name. KWR research was presented in multiple sessions, workshops, and even a keynote lecture by Gertjan Medema, ranging from topics on the circular economy to sewage surveillance and water quality. Thousands of people attended the event, the KWR & Friends booth was visited frequently, and multiple activities were organised there. Water quality and health was a highly relevant theme during the Congress, flowing into other interesting themes as well. For me, this was a truly eye-opening experience, showcasing the value of interdisciplinarity and networking. In the next paragraphs, I will describe more specifically what I learned on the topics of water quality and health, and engaging young professionals at the Congress.

Sewage monitoring and upcoming challenges

With day 1 of the congress finished, day 2 (Tuesday) for the KWR & Friends booth focused on ‘Water Quality & Health’. During lunch, Prof. Gertjan Medema and, myself, Nienke Meekel, hosted a panel session on wastewater surveillance. The panel consisted of leading experts in the field of sewage monitoring, coming from different disciplines:
  • Daniel Deere, who is a Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH) consultant at Water Futures, Australia;
  • Prof. Joan Rose, who is co-director of the Center for Water Sciences and Center for Advancing Microbial Risk Assessment, Michigan State University, and KWR Honorary Fellow;
  • Kate Medlicott who is team leader Sanitation and Wastewater at the Water, Sanitation, Hygiene and Health Unit of the World Health Organization; and
  • Jay Bhagwan who is Executive Manager on Water Use and Waste management of the Water Research Commission South Africa.
Recognising the importance of collaboration and in line with our KWR & Friends theme, it was great to have Stephanie Rink-Pfeiffer, Director of the Global Water Research Coalition, moderating the session. I noticed that all panelists highlighted the unlikely speed at which sewage monitoring for Covid-19 was set up and pointed out that it could also be used for other health monitoring purposes. A point of discussion was the use of the word  ‘surveillance’ which might refer too much to ‘spying’ when translated to other languages, and other terms were suggested, like ‘monitoring’. I think this is essential to consider, just like the ethical side of sewage monitoring.

Intergenerational dialogue on water quality and health

In the afternoon, we hosted an intergenerational dialogue about future water quality and health challenges, engaging young and experienced professionals. This led to exciting discussions, enlightening various perspectives, and a fruitful environment for building new connections. Next to the intergenerational dialogues, the IWA Young Water Professionals organised several activities as well, ranging from workshops on entrepreneurship as a way to bridge research and practice to a powerful keynote lecture by Inês Breda. She challenged the water sector to include young water professionals in decision-making positions, especially to act upon climate change.

Besides the KWR & Friends booth activities, the topic of water quality was present across multiple sessions at the Congress. Topics covered included pathogens, PFAS, pesticides, and other contaminants of emerging concern and the effects of treatment technologies for their removal. In my opinion, upcoming techniques like non-target screening and effect-directed analysis (which weren’t given much attention during this congress, yet) could play a valuable role in these research topics. The diversity of the congress fits well in our corporate motto of bridging science to practice. Both areas, and the interconnection between them, were present at the congress.

Interdisciplinary research is key

For me, this week at IWA was truly inspiring, where I met many people from different fields within the water sector. I learned that the interdisciplinarity of our research is a key factor in the ability to implement the results of our research and make them as robust as possible. Current trends in chemical monitoring involve the acquisition of more and more data, but if it isn’t presented understandably, the added value is low. These are to me some interesting points to take into my work for the future of this topic.

Stay tuned for the blogs from my young professional colleagues at KWR, Lisa Andrews on diverse collaboration and knowledge exchange, Siddharth Seshan on digital water, and Janine de Wit on circular economy, who also attended the IWA World Water Congress!