Welcome to the Surface! A Report From The IWA European Utility Management Conference

Every second year the International Water Association (IWA) organizes the European Utility Management Conference (EUC). This year the three-day event was held in Oslo, Norway. The 120 conference delegates represented a concentration of leading expertise, knowledge and experience from the European utility management sector. Approximately 50 invite-only speakers presented and discussed the future of the utility industries with topics such as: energy and carbon, adaptation to climate change, consumer confidence, urban transitions and innovation.

 The main plenary session that rounded off the conference was about innovation. Here the water sector was literally invited ‘to the surface’, as the infrastructure until now mainly has been hidden under the ground and the sector was largely ignored for years. The image of the water sector and awareness about the sector were highlighted as important issues that require action, as was the need to address the water sector’s combination of conservatism and potential for innovation.


A great example of what the future of this sector has to offer is that the main function of the waste water treatment plants will no longer be to treat pollutants, but instead to produce resources, heat and energy. This production is already taking place in some plants today, but the potential in wastewater sludge actually exceeds the energy needed for treatment by a 10-fold, and constant improvements are taking this potential into account. Waste water treatment plants are now transitioning from being energy and heat consuming, to being neutral and even energy and heat producers. In addition, there is also a great potential for increasing the utilisation of the nutrients in human waste. One ‘golden’ example was from Waternet, that explained how Amsterdam has started urine collection from stadiums such as the Heineken Music Hall, Ziggo Dome and Ajax. As the problem with capturing the nutrients from human wastewater often is the dilution, this ‘pure’ urine can easily be converted to struvite and then be used directly as a fertiliser.


The latest technologies for monitoring systems and their advantages were also presented.  Suez was one of those showing the way forward by demonstrating how discovering leakages and logging water consumption can be easily transmitted over large areas with only a few antennae’s, allowing for great cost reductions. An example from a town in Malta showed that after monitoring had started, a total of 1 million euro per year could be saved.

Hamburg Wasser were among the most visionary and brave of the utility companies. They are currently building a new kind of wastewater system, a system with a philosophy many say is the future, but no one has tested in full scale until now. The system is in a settlement for 2000 people, the different qualities of water are kept separate, and all of the water except the blackwater is treated decentralised. In total this creates a wastewater system optimised for reuse of both water and nutrients, as the same time as energy is saved. Their slogan was: ”If you aim for improved efficiency and novel wastewater infrastructure in 50 years time you ought to start today…”.


There was generally an agreement at the conference to end the ”battle” between supporters of either centralized or decentralized wastewater solutions, and rather start listening to each other and learn from each other’s experience and knowledge. There are many middle roads and interesting combinations of systems, and every solution need to be adapted to the specific location.

The conference served as an important platform for the leaders of utility companies from all of Europe to meet and discuss issues in person. In addition a group of 12 master- and PhD-students volunteered at the conference and had valuable insight in the sectors currently most important issues. It was the Oslo utility company that hosted the conference and they, as well as the students, highlighted the importance on involving young professionals at these kind of events. The value for young professionals is not only in the high level academic and organisational input, but also to meet with relevant international expertise and to expand their network. All of this creates visions and motivations for further work.

 The overall conclusion of the three inspiring days was that the water sector is an exciting place to be these days. This sector has traditionally not received much attention, especially the wastewater sector, but this is changing as more and more people are understanding the importance of water and sanitation. The water sector is now finally approaching the surface. It has great activity, growth and a great potential for innovative improvements that can lead to immense benefits both for the environment and our societies.