A Conversation with Tom Mollenkopf, IWA President

By Tom Mollenkopf 24 May, 2022

What are the biggest challenges & opportunities for the water sector in a changing climate? Find out and more in CWR’s interview of IWA President Mollenkopf as part of the SIWW 2022 Water Leaders Interview Series

Water is about liveability, people & sustainability; there is no greater existential challenge facing our world than climate change; good news is that there are already solutions
But as just water is life, life is politics so, we have to deal with the politics of climate change; there are many ways the water sector can adapt & build resilience
Banks, insurers & financial institutions will see water hitting their back pocket; at IWA we can see their interest growing, especially as they see the business opportunities
Tom Mollenkopf
Author: Tom Mollenkopf
Tom Mollenkopf is passionate about the central role that water and sanitation play in the social, environmental and economic wellbeing of our societies. He is also a firm believer in the power of constructive engagement and evidence-based decision making as the foundation of sound policy. Tom is Chairperson and President of the International Water Association; an independent advisor on policy, strategy and governance; and a Senior Associate with the Aither consultancy. Tom's professional background is in law, first in private legal practice, then as corporate counsel - including Head of Legal at Australian Airlines (until its merger with Qantas) - before undertaking a series of executive and CEO roles in the water and environment sector. He was CEO of the Peter Cullen Water and Environment Trust until 2021 and between 2007 and 2013 was CEO of the Australian Water Association. He is a Non-Executive Director on several Boards and is a member of the Victorian Sustainability Fund Committee and the Australian Water Partnership Expert Review Panel.
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The content of this interview was extracted from one of the video interviews CWR’s Dawn McGregor conducted as part of Singapore International Water Week (SIWW) 2022 Water Leaders Interview Series. The video interviews are not available yet but watch the full interview video via SIWW+ digital content hub from 1 June 2022 onwards.

In this interview McGregor sat down with Tom Mollenkopf, President of the International Water Association (IWA). See his thoughts on the biggest challenges facing the water sector, the evolution of SIWW having been there from the first one in 2008 and why Singapore makes such a great testbed. Plus, see what IWA is doing to galvanize action on climate impacts and how the organisation works with business and finance.

IWA is a global organisation with members in 140 countries worldwide, forming the largest international network of water professionals working towards a water wise world. It combines global expertise in research, practice, regulation, engineering, consulting, industry and manufacturing to accelerate delivering innovative, pragmatic and sustainable water solutions.

CWR: Hi Tom, thanks so much for joining us today. We’ve got a few questions we’re going to run through and to kick off in three words, can you describe what water means to you?

Tom Mollenkopf (TM): I think for many people, the phrase ‘water is life’ immediately comes to mind. But I think at a much deeper level, for me, water is about liveability. It’s about people. And it’s about sustainability. By liveability, I mean the economic, the social fabric of society. And by people, I think more broadly about the aesthetic pleasures that we derive from water, the joy that it brings to our lives. And finally, around sustainability, when we think about ‘water is life’, we think about our lives, but the reality is that water is essential to the planet as a whole and so that’s all species.

CWR: Definitely. Next up what would you say is the biggest challenge and normally when there’s risk or challenge, there’s also opportunity, so what’s the biggest challenge and the biggest opportunity for the water community with the risks that we’re facing, especially increasing climate risks?

TM: I think you have it there. There is no greater existential challenge facing our world at moment than climate change. And, at one level, we don’t need to argue about what’s causing it because the fact of it happening means that we absolutely must adopt adaptation strategies. But, frankly, it is beyond me why one would not recognise the overwhelming science and acknowledge that climate change is linked to human activity. So very clearly, our challenges are around mitigation and adaptation.

There is no greater challenge than climate change…

…There are solutions…

…we first need commitment… so we have to deal with the politics of climate change

The great news is that there’s been so much work done on this that there are solutions. What we first need is commitment. And it’s easy to say but we’ve got to get beyond the politics, but just as water is life, life is politics. And so, we have to deal with the politics of climate change.

Fortunately, by and large the population and the water community understand this and I think policymakers are going to be driven to act whether they want to or not.


CWR: Agree and I think within the water community, even maybe business and finance as well now, know that we are the point where we need to be doing more and quicker.

TM: Business sometimes gets a bad rap, but business is really logical. Business knows how to evaluate data and knows what makes sense. And when you look at the banks, the insurance companies, the financial institutions, all of them are saying we’ve got to do something about this, because we’re at risk, the global economy is at risk unless we act. So, whilst we in the water sector see this hitting us physically – in a very direct way be it through flooding or droughts – the other parts of the economy will see it hitting their back pocket, which is a huge motivator.

CWR: Definitely. One thing I’d like to pick up on was you mentioned adaptation. We see a lot of effort, even though we still need more, around mitigation but with water is there room to fast-track and broaden adaptation measures? Especially since water is how we will feel most of the climate impacts that you’ve already mentioned like either prolonged droughts, dry periods, storm surge, sea level rise or flooding.

TM: There’s a lot that can be done, and indeed there is already a lot that is being done around adaptation. Some of these initiatives have been under way for many years.

In Australia, where I come from, the west of the nation has been at the sharp end of dealing with climate change for over 20 years now. Some of the key things that have been done are around demand management. This has not impacted negatively on people’s way of life but has simply focussed on sensible water use. One of the most effective and cost-effective ways of narrowing the water supply-demand gap is to cut our water consumption.

A major challenge is increasing acceptance of recycled water…

…also need to plan infrastructure for the changing climate

The other key thing that can be done is around diversification of supply sources, whether that is new dams, desalination, or water recycling. On this latter point, a major challenge for the water sector is getting increasing acceptance of recycled water, at a legal and policy level, but also a community acceptance level. Within the industry, we will need to work hard to engage our communities in conversations to build trust and we must ensure that our processes are robust so people have confidence in recycled water quality.

Finally, infrastructure planning, including the design and siting of key assets, needs to take account of our changing climate, and the changing profile of extreme weather events or changing rainfall patterns. All of these things are eminently achievable and are increasingly being done. One of the great things about being at Singapore International Water Week is a chance to start and to share some of those ideas and increase the uptake.

CWR: You’ve been attending Singapore International Water Week (SIWW) for several years now and are very familiar with the event, have you seen it evolve?

TM: Well, I’m pleased to say that I’ve been here since the very beginning. The International Water Association (IWA) has partnered with PUB since the first iteration of Singapore International Water Week. I think there’s been a very predictable maturing of the event. I think that it’s really solidified itself on the global stage and brings a wonderful blend of some of the best technology, the best minds in the world but in a unique perspective, from a regional perspective here in Asia.

“we’ve got this wonderful testbed [in Singapore]”

One of the other things that I’ve also found to be exciting is that the Singapore water story has really unfolded over the last decade. And it’s a rich story, bringing together industry, technology, science and research, and PUB (as the National Water Agency) and government. What that means is that we’ve got this wonderful testbed where all these great ideas from around the world can be picked up really quickly and tested and put into practice and then rolled out into that next stage of being adapted.

CWR: And then putting your IWA hat on as the leading global water network, what is IWA doing to galvanize the water community to fight the climate crisis?

TM: One of the things that excites me about IWA is that we’re very much a bottom-up organisation, where our strength is in our membership – 140 nations represented within IWA and across the breadth of the water sector involving practitioners, utilities, technology suppliers, and research and academia. So, with that, the way that we’re able to galvanize and move to action is through those thousands of members in that very strong network.

Young professionals is a potent part of IWA’s network

One part of our network that is particularly potent, is our young water professionals. They’re an incredibly driven group of individuals around the world and I would certainly never try and hold them back. They are very much a focused group.

We provide the opportunity for exchange, for knowledge sharing, for learning, but the power that then comes through is self-activation in local communities. It’s the best of both worlds, global knowledge, applied locally.

CWR: Do you have any advice for students who are graduating soon or for people who want to enter the water industry?

TM: I came to the sector almost by mistake. I was recruited for what I thought was a good job, but I wasn’t terribly excited by it being in a public water utility, let alone a public wastewater utility. But having got there, I was really captured by the passion of the people and their genuine commitment to health and environmental outcomes. So, for anyone wanting to come in, I think it’s a case of just looking at your values and frankly if it lines up, I just know that the path is so much easier and more rewarding. When people come to look at any sort of a role, I think that the sparkle in the eyes of those already working there is the most powerful message.

CWR: True, water definitely is a bunch of passionate people even when you are talking about wastewater, the conversations can go on and on and even me, I surprise myself I quite enjoy them. It’s an interesting topic, though when you talk outside of the water sector, less so.

One of the other things you mentioned is about IWA, is the global knowledge and the local impact. With so much happening within IWA, I wonder if mainstream business and finance, since they’re trying to get more involved and you mentioned we need everyone landscape artists to business to the tech guys to everyone, how can we leverage what’s coming out of IWA for these guys to be able to use it or be aware of it? I feel like they might be missing really good information or projects or tech coming out for solutions.

TM: I think this will be attacked from both ends of the spectrum. IWA has changed over time in terms of who our members are and who we look to engage with. But I’ve also found that other industries and other disciplines have become more interested in IWA.

Other industries & disciplines have become more interested in IWA

So, for example, we probably started out traditionally having two core streams namely, utility leaders and researchers and academics, but now you’ll find within IWA and our emerging specialist groups, people from regulation, policy and economics. And then in terms of the external interest, we have seen interest from financial institutions that are trying to increase their awareness of water related issues but also as they are seeing the business opportunities.

Further reading

  • Why Isn’t Water Top Of The Climate Agenda? – If water risks were properly valued, they would be much greater than the energy transition risks so, why isn’t water at the top of the agenda asks Eco-Business’ Sonia Sambhi who caught CWR’s Debra Tan & other water experts at SIWW 2021
  • How Singapore’s Water Management Has Become A Global Model for How to Tackle Climate Crisis – Taking from its successful water management, Singapore is adopting a long-term, integrated & prepared for the worst approach on climate. Find out more from Global water guru Professor Asit Biswas & PUB’s CEO Peter Joohee Ng
  • Game Changers: 6 Lee Kuan Yew Water Prize Laureates – We would be fools not to tackle 3 game changers for our future water & climate according to 6 LKY laureates. CWR’s Dawn McGregor breaks them down
  • Not Just a Drop in the Ocean – Global water guru Professor Asit Biswas & Singapore PUB’s CEO Peter Joohee Ng share how the country is setting the example on climate change & water mgmt by formulating long-term plans despite only accounting for 0.1% of global GHG emissions

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