Great Rivers Partnership

Life Along the Danube Inspires a Life’s Work

“I would say I have been most inspired by T.G. Masaryk, the founder and first president of Czechoslovakia—the country I was born in. As a humanist and philosopher, Masaryk left a tremendous ethical and political legacy.

For me, his most memorable piece of advice was: Nebat se a nekrast (in Czech). This means ‘don't be afraid and don't steal.’ A simple notion that I think, if broadly applied, could speed up development work by orders of magnitude globally.”

Listening to Ivan Zavadsky describe his childhood home in Bratislava, in the former Czechoslovakia, might just inspire a daydream. It’s easy to imagine spending hours relaxing in his family’s courtyard overlooking the Danube River. Sounds of birds and the gentle lapping of water paint an even more peaceful picture. And then, Ivan gets to the landscape.

The house, he explains, was built along the river on the edge of an industrial area. Looking opposite the river, he would see a constant flurry of workers and a vast water pumping station and reservoir. But Ivan makes no hint at this being a less than idyllic backdrop. Instead, he shares a story about a wagon ride.

“My father was the CEO at a water utility company and all our neighbors worked in the water sector,” Ivan says. “I’ll never forget this man who was in charge of the wells on the island in the middle of the river. He once took me on a wagon ride through the station so I could see how water was processed. It was fascinating. The technical side of water amazed me just as much as the river. I always felt lucky to have both worlds, both expressions of water, right outside my window.”

This early experience inspired Ivan to think about the ‘where’ of water. Where it comes from, where it goes and what becomes of it later. Like his older brother, he followed in his father’s footsteps and studied water resources management in college as well as related economics. Soon after finishing his studies at Slovak Technical University in Bratislava and beginning his career—naturally working for the City of Bratislava’s water utility—Ivan realized his interests extended beyond the traditional water sector.

“People strive to use water to its maximum extent. We have to for basic water supply, power generation, irrigation, navigation and so on. And in the developed world we’ve become, for the most part, adept at meeting these quantitative needs. But it’s the qualitative needs I couldn’t stop thinking about,” Ivan says. “Everything in nature, including ourselves, depends on clean water for survival.”

With a growing interest in water quality, Ivan moved into governmental work where he could affect related policy. He spent 11 years as director general at the Ministry of Environment of Slovakia, responsible for policy and regulation of water, waste and air sectors. During that time, Ivan also led negotiations for the accession of Slovakia to the European Union (EU) on behalf of the environmental sector.

As his career evolved, Ivan’s focus broadened to the full Danube River system. Unique opportunities to act as a regional director and project manager for the United Nations Development Programme and Global Environment Facility allowed him to assist Danube countries with the implementation of the Danube River Protection Convention—a legal transboundary water management agreement signed by 11 countries in 1994, which was enforced in 1998.

“Holistic approaches like this make the most sense. Multiple jurisdictions, industries, agriculture and other sectors can help strike a balance for the river, and truly for themselves, when they join together and consider the full breadth of a waterway,” Ivan explains. “This is why I was so humbled to be invited onto the advisory board for the Conservancy’s Great Rivers Partnership. The GRP is working on a watershed as large as the Mississippi River and reaching out to the rest of the world to exchange knowledge. This type of initiative is exciting, and it’s also complementary to my work with Global Environment Facility.”

Ivan currently acts as a senior water resources manager for Global Environment Facility in its international waters focal area. In this role, he helps countries work together toward sustainable management of shared resources including oceans, rivers, lakes and groundwater systems. He currently lives and works in Washington, DC, but proudly shares that he never left the Danube’s side until age 45.


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