When the COVID-19 pandemic emerged, it quickly became clear that the pandemic was more than a health crisis. It would affect many facets of life - including the operation of critical infrastructure - and highlighted the importance of safe and reliable water services. While many of us shifted operations to home-based work, essential workers and utilities at the forefront of service delivery needed to strategize a way forward.
Implemented by the World Bank and the International Association of Water Service Companies in the Danube River Catchment Area (IAWD), the Danube Water Program (DWP) supports sustainable water and wastewater services in the Danube region. Since the program began in 2013, the DWP has established a network of water utility associations, regulators, ministries and water sector professionals, and has become a well-known resource for capacity building, knowledge sharing and analytical and advisory services in the Danube region. Therefore, when COVID-19 hit, the DWP was uniquely positioned to mobilize a broad regional network to exchange and disseminate timely information.
The first point of action was to gather and disseminate nascent information available on COVID-19 and the water sector. This included webpages, guidance documents and webinars from the World Bank, IAWD, national water utility associations and other relevant stakeholders in the water sector. The information was consolidated and hosted on the IAWD webpage and circulated to the broader network via the Danube Water Program Newsletter.
Next, the DWP team mobilized its network to host a series of just-in-time webinars to cover a range of topics in response to the evolving demand for information. The first exchange covered the influence of the global pandemic on the provision of services in the water supply and sanitation sector and attracted an audience of 120 participants from 23 countries. While we scrambled to become masters of the wonky Webex Events platform, demand for topics continued to pour in.
In the months of May and June, the DWP team hosted discussions on topics like financial impact assessment tools and guidance on the business continuity of water services. The content evolved week to week and was demand driven; during one webinar, several questions from the audience popped up on COVID-19 and wastewater, while a few weeks later the team hosted a panel of experts to discuss “Detecting and managing COVID-19 in sanitary wastewater.” In just two months, the DWP hosted five webinars drawing 475 experts and representatives from the Danube region and around the globe. Recordings, summaries and related material of all webinars are available on the DWP website.
In the meantime, while some program activities were put on pause, other initiatives took precedence, like the D-LeaP course on Water Safety Planning and Crisis Management. As part of the Danube Learning Partnership, the curriculum was updated to put a stronger focus on pandemic-related crisis situations and add further risk-assessment components, which will be rolled out in a number of countries soon.
While the team adapted to the new normal, we continued to take the DWP virtual. The COVID-19 pandemic proved the value of user-friendly web services, and the importance of virtual meeting places. As restrictions on travel and workshops endured, meetings and events continued to move online. All the while, IAWD was working on a strategy to streamline communications. In early July, the Voice of the Danube webpage was launched. The new webpage is a full-spectrum service site including all Danube Water Program, D-LeaP, Danubis.org and IAWD content. The site hosts many great features such as a lively news section, an event calendar and the core of the site - the Danube toolbox - which houses comprehensive information on the Danube Learning Partnership, DWP benchmarking activities and the Danube library. The new website offers the the Danube Water Program community a new virtual home where information exchange really happens. “One access. Easy navigation. All information, services and tools,” says IAWD President Walter Kling: “The Voice of the Danube web will bring our community even closer together, and that is helpful in a global health crisis.”
The COVID-19 pandemic pushed nations, regions and the economy into uncharted territory. One important lesson we can take from this crisis is the value of cooperation, networking and knowledge sharing. Here, the Danube Water Program proved its quality. Long-term regional engagement and recognition helped the DWP quickly mobilize a meaningful crisis response within, and even beyond its established regional network. We moved quickly and responded to demand for information by providing resources, guidance notes, a series of webinars and an updated curriculum on Water Safety Planning, as well as a new webpage hosting an online community to exchange timely information. To adapt to the “new normal,” we are continuing to move activities online, including the first virtual edition of the Danube Water Forum (October 27-29).