Every year, the Danube Water Program (DWP) - a partnership between the World Bank and the International Association of Water Service Companies in the Danube River Catchment Area (IAWD) - hosts a regional water sector conference. In 2019, the Danube Water Conference was held in Vienna to discuss the topic of resilience. This year, the first Danube Water Forum (DWF) was planned to convene relevant stakeholders in Banja Luka to discuss data and digitalization. The topics of resilience and digitalization proved valuable and timely because when the pandemic halted travel and events, the Forum itself had to demonstrate resilience and go digital. As a result, on October 27-29, relevant stakeholders met virtually to discuss “The Importance of Water Sector Data in the Digital Age.”
Virtual attendees participated in our sessions covering a wide variety of sub-topics, including the relevance of data for water management and sustainable service provision, water data in the intersectoral context, and using sound data for smart policies, among others. The importance of data and digitalization was also highlighted by the European Commission's participation at the event, making reference to the European Green Deal and the European Data Strategy - a game-changing approach that puts data at the center of practically all economic developments. But why exactly is data and digitalization key to improving water sector performance, and how can it help the Bank contribute to increased water security and SDG 6 – clean water and sanitation for all?
For one, data can help governments and regulators not only foster and achieve certain benchmarks and goals, but also allow the Bank to more effectively meet client needs. Utility benchmarking programs, as offered under the DWP, for example, allow individual utilities to collect data and compare it with that of other utilities to see how they are performing both within their own countries and in the Danube region overall. This is especially important during the COVID-19 pandemic, further revealing existing shortcomings and putting additional pressure on the sector to effectively cope with the challenging situation.
Examples from the region further illustrated this point. Maja Medenica, the head of the asset management center at Belgrade Waterworks and Sewerage in Serbia, highlighted an example, stating that “20 years ago, we estimated that Belgrade’s water system counts some 2.500 kilometers of pipeline. After collecting and analyzing the data, we now know that is rather 4.000 kilometers, and we can plan repair and maintenance capacities accordingly.”
Moreover, high-quality data is also necessary for the Bank to help design, and governments to implement sound policies in the sector. According to Milica Petrovic, the communal services coordinator at the Energy and Water Regulatory Agency of Montenegro, “benchmarking determined our methodic approach to tariff setting,” adding that the agency is “about to introduce first tariff regulations in 2021, based on 200 data sets we collect every month.”
But the digital component of data utilization is just as important. As the initial wave of the COVID-19 pandemic was occurring, our team organized numerous webinars between May and June with regional stakeholders and Bank staff to discuss ways for the sector to effectively deal with the pandemic, and how digital tools can be used to help alleviate the situation (read the following blog to learn more about the DWP’s response to COVID-19). For example, it was interesting to learn that invoices are often still paid in person, but given that social distancing is essential to help limit the spread of COVID-19, however, utilities will have to utilize online methods to receive such payments.
But perhaps what’s most notable from this year’s DWF is how data is being discussed among sector stakeholders. A poll we took among DWF participants found that 90 percent thought that data management and digitalization can offer significant opportunities for their work, while 65 percent thought that water sector data should be widely shared and openly accessible. This represents a significant shift. When the DWP was launched in 2013 and at the first conference, the discussions were around whether data should at all be collected. Now, also due to the support provided by the different program activities during the last years, including for instance the State of the Sector Reports, Utility Benchmarking Program and the DANUBIS.org utility data base, which is linked to IBNET, we’re now focused on how we should be utilizing data to achieve smart policies, strong utilities and sustainable services for all.
All the presentations, session summaries and recordings from the DWF can be viewed online by clicking here, or by simply reaching out to the DWP team.