Blog17 December 2020
Twenty-twenty will enter our history books as the year of Covid-19. But how will 2021 be remembered? In her end of year message, Bianca Nijhof, Managing Director of the Netherlands Water Partnership (NWP), looks back on a tumultuous year with lots of uncertainties and unprecedented challenges. She also reflects on how Covid-19 has forced us to learn quickly and adapt our ways of working. “Taking positive learnings into the future will help us to come out of the crisis with a more sustainable mindset,” she states. “And that is very much needed as our ‘other’ major challenges are still ongoing.”
‘Droughts, floods, pollution, climate hazards, conflicts and water shortages will not wait until we have conquered the pandemic. The need for sensible and sustainable water management is greater than ever before. And our water sector has an important role to play in making it clear to governments, business, industry and consumers alike how our future depends on our one and most valuable raw material: water.
The pandemic showed, once again, how water is at the core of almost every worldwide challenge. We are seeing how water is crucial in the fight against Covid-19. We are painfully witnessing how the lack of access to clean water in many countries is making it impossible to take adequate measures against the spread of the virus. Water is a precondition for a healthy society.
Funds were allocated to make more water accessible. Water purification plants were suddenly in high demand, and for some water companies Covid-19 even led to new or growing business opportunities.
Overall, however, like all sectors, the water sector itself was hit hard by Covid-19. The pandemic is unprecedented in testing us in how we carry on with our daily business. It is also unleashing unknown forces and creativity and new solutions in conducting business.
For the international network of NWP and its members, one of the most direct effects was the cancellation or postponement of many conferences and matchmaking events. However, just as many have been redesigned as online activities. And because the whole world has had a crash course in virtual working, this shift has fortunately led to some highly positive outcomes and new ways of reaching our audiences.
We know for example, that we have been able to involve many more small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and start-ups in the virtual events and missions that we have organised than otherwise. The expenses in time and travel would normally have prevented them from taking part in live international conferences. But doing a wide range of water events virtually has brought them within reach for all, leading to a more diverse audience contributing new ideas and mindsets. The same applies to organisations from other parts of the world. The lack of traveling costs has clearly led to more international participants. The number of matches in online events can now easily reach numbers that are simply impossible in a live environment.
That is not to say that live events should not happen anymore in the future. Final deals are often sealed at the coffee machine, and looking each other in the eye creates trust which cannot always be replicated in a virtual environment. I expect we will be much more strategic in choosing which events to go to in person, and which we can attend online. Hybrid conferences, offering both options, will no doubt become the new standard.
Despite all the changes and the challenges, I am also very pleased when I look at what has been achieved in 2020 in the field of water management. Even in difficult circumstances our Partners for Water Programme activities have continued with full force. We have seen a new MoU being signed between the Netherlands and Egypt, reaffirming and intensifying the long-lasting water cooperation between both countries. We expect the same with Indonesia at the beginning of next year.
Other activities that we have achieved this year include sealing the important agreement between NWP and the World Bank under the West Africa Coastal Areas (WACA) Program that opens the gateway between the Dutch water sector and West African countries. Further, we have given a powerful push to the ‘export x 10’ programme that aims at significantly increasing the export figures of Dutch water technology. We also started our Urban Resilience Hub and organised many successful online events and virtual missions such as our own NWP member meetups, Covid-19 related webinars, the ASEAN5 virtual mission, just to name a few. And let us not forget about our successful series of online sessions in Latin America.
Twenty-twenty was also the year in which we launched a new pay-off and a new trailer summarising our great challenges for the future. How can we encourage business and society to recognise the real value of water? How will we transform into a world that acknowledges water as the driver of our future?
While water plays a major role in all worldwide problems and challenges, hardly anywhere is it prioritised. In addition, we see that water is predominantly part of government led projects and approaches. We do not want that to stop, definitely not, but we do want other large players - or should I say consumers - to become much more involved.
When you consider that agriculture and industry consume the largest amounts of fresh water, more than 90 percent in some countries, then I think this is where NWP should put more attention.
We are reaching out to agricultural and horticultural organisations in our own country as well as around the world. And we will definitely put more effort in these areas. The same applies to our approach towards industry. While these sectors clearly need to take their own responsibility, we do see it as part of our water sector’s responsibility to actively involve other sectors in the development of water innovations.
With more than 2,000 companies, knowledge institutes, NGOs and government organisations, the Dutch water sector itself generates an annual turnover of over EUR 17 billion, of which 40 percent is in the foreign market. Dutch companies are involved in about 10 percent of the world's drinking water supply and 40 percent of the freely accessible hydraulic engineering market is in Dutch hands. To put it differently, when we join forces and co-create, we make impactful innovations happen and reach out to other sectors too.
Innovations often emerge at the interface between different sectors and the expertise of the water sector can make all the difference. In the circular economy, for example, a lot of water can be saved if wastewater treatment and agricultural and industrial water consumption are connected.
Recognising this, NWP will continue to catalyse and connect. It sees the need for greater cooperation between the water sector and sectors such as agriculture and horticulture, the food industry, construction and infrastructure, and sustainable energy. This will lead to new business opportunities that are not only good for our sector, but also for our planet.
We are increasingly seeing the trend of companies putting water on their balance sheets. This makes me very hopeful that the world is becoming more aware of the value of water. Having said that, we absolutely cannot sit back and relax. Overcoming Covid-19 is one thing, but we need to continue the fight for the other challenges too. Whether you look at the world from a business perspective or from the angle of society, health, or ecology, all challenges revolve around water.
There is a good reason that water is a recurring ingredient in all the SDGs, and we can only repeat how important the SDGs are. It is the one and most important agenda that we have for the future of humanity. Our future is water driven.’