In April 2018, Water International, published the first special issue prepared on behalf of the International Water Resources Association (IWRA) under the aegis of its Science, Technology and Publications Committee. This special issue on water quality governance is a continuation of IWRA’s work and forms part of its contribution to the 8th World Water Forum, in Brasilia, Brazil, March 18–23, 2018. Six IWRA experts responded to the question “What Wicked Problem Faces Water Quality Management Over the Next 20 Years?” in this special issue:
- Blanca Jiménez Cisneros – The Complexity of Water Quality is an Old Problem for Water Managers and Will Remain So
- Tom Soo – Unlocking the Potential for Using Different Water Qualities as a Complementary Resource
- Rabi H. Mohtar – The Wicked Problem of Soil and Water Quality
- Gabriel Eckstein – The Wicked Problem of Pharmaceuticals in Our Waters
- Shaofeng Jia – Threats to Water Quality are a More Serious Challenge to Water Resources Security than Diminishing Supply
- Feng Hu – How to Balance Economic Development and Water Protection – A Wicked Problem
In the first paper of this volume, Heather Bond also provided a more detailed record of IWRA’s work in this area and summarised the results and findings from the report Developing a Global Compendium on Water Quality Guidelines: Which Quality for Which Use?
Below are 8 key points on water quality from this special April 2018 issue of Water International:
1. Existing governance systems cannot cope with wicked water quality problems
Drinking water can contain any of more than 70,000 potentially harmful artificial substances. The health effects are not well known for most of these. Drinking water standards differ from country to country. They typically cover 40-70 parameters, and even those are often not up to date or fully monitored. The number of artificial substances in our water continues to grow. Natural substances such as heavy metals can also be harmful. (based on Jimenez)
Drinking water can contain any of >70,000 potentially harmful artificial substances
At the same time, our bodies need some compounds that are in water. Purified water is not healthy. Populations are increasingly reliant on groundwater, yet aquifers are often polluted by nature (arsenic, fluorides) or by seepage of hazardous wastes from the surface.
2. Pharmaceuticals are particularly worrisome
At least 630 different pharmaceutical substances, including antibiotics, mood stabilisers, sex hormones, blood thinners, beta blockers and over-the-counter medications, have been found in waters around the world, even after wastewater treatment. Treating for pharmaceuticals is economically prohibitive.
Substances still found even after wastewater treatment
Very few governments have developed broad management, mitigation or disposal-prevention strategies to address pharmaceutical pollution; none have implemented laws in this area. (Eckstein)
3. Water quality is a more serious threat to water security than diminishing supply, yet regulation is more difficult
Integrated water quality management, while necessary, is difficult. It is very hard to monitor major polluters, especially when bribing regulators is cheaper for polluters than cleaning up their discharges. Institutions that monitor water quality often sequester data from the public. (Jia)
4. Managing many wicked water quality problems requires managing the economy and the impacts of an increasingly urbanised population
Pressures of economic growth and rapid urbanisation in developing countries such as China almost invariably leave in their wake polluted wastewater discharges during their industrialisation phase. Water quality management is usually carried out by weak authorities and without being embedded in regional planning.
The legacy of ineffective & poorly integrated water quality management may take some time to overcome
Eventually, as with the Water Pollution & Control Law in China, steps have been taken towards integrating water quantity and quality management, and shifting towards Strategic Emerging Industries that are less polluting. The legacy of ineffective and poorly integrated water quality management may take some time to overcome, however. (Feng)
5. At the same time, most non-point pollution stems from agricultural production, where the degradation of the soil as well as the water must be addressed
Even in China, and in many post-industrial developed economies, agriculture is the largest user of water, and the largest non-point source of pollution. A non-point source is by its nature difficult to regulate, yet unless action is taken to stop soil pollution and degradation as well as water pollution, increasingly intensive agricultural production is likely to self-destruct. (Mohtar)
Efforts to use market-based instruments to address non-point source pollution in agriculture are met locally with concerns that this would just end up paying farmers who will continue to pollute. (Kerr and Bjornlund)
6. Wastewater can replace freshwater for many purposes, but requires sophisticated and expensive technologies and operating systems, and is often not well accepted by end users
It is well established that different water qualities can be used for different uses. For example, using water for irrigation that meets drinking water standards is wasteful and not even best for farming, which benefits from nutrient-laden water. (Soo)
Whether farmers accept wastewater treated for irrigation depends on their perception of safety & trust local authorities…
In some cases such as Singapore, urban wastewater is treated to drinking water standards, or even better, at a cost below that of desalination. Yet this can require a high level of sophistication to install and operate. Whether farmers accept urban wastewater treated for irrigation depends to a large extent on their perceptions of safety and whether they can trust local authorities to adequately monitor and maintain treatment facilities. Such trust is not forthcoming in much of the world, and rightly so. (Dare and Mohtar)
7. “Integrated water resources management” rarely considers the quality of the water once it reaches the shore or open ocean
Despite the spread of dead zones in coastal areas, the degradation of major coral reefs, and the presence of harmful pollutants in marine life, water quality is rarely addressed from “source to sea” in any integrated manner.
Water quality is rarely addressed from “source to sea” in any integrated manner…
…Danube Basin is an exception thanks to policy reforms & large investments
In the Danube Basin, thanks to policy and regulatory reforms and large investment outlays, significant improvements have been made in reducing eutrophication and hypoxia in the Black Sea estuary over 15 years due to the reduction of phosphorus and nitrogen flowing from the river.
Nonetheless, the sustainability of even this apparent success story is limited by the program’s inability to establish an effective monitoring system in the Black Sea. Long-term regional efforts to improve the Baltic Sea have been less successful, both because of lack of commitment by noncoastal riparians and the long residence time of the sea. (Lyss Lymer et al)
8. Solutions take time but governance systems are usually geared towards short-term results
There are many examples of this, including the Baltic Sea case just mentioned. Despite a number of innovations, including a holistic long-term plan, the Great Barrier Reef is endangered not only by climate change but also because of confrontational interest-group led politics and a very complex, cumbersome governance system. (Tan and Humphries)
The case of Minamata methyl mercury poisoning half a century ago, and the incremental and often hesitant government responses to victim compensation, into the recent past, is a most unfortunate illustration of lingering problems when toxic discharges can leave toxic legacies on victims (Kobayashi)
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