reverse osmosis banner vertical

Due to the pressures of increasing population and developing economy all over the world, the present situation of water-quality management is far from satisfactory. To enhance the sustainability of water-quality-management systems, in-depth research of the related barriers and the relevant mitigation approaches is desired. When such studies are done, they are largely done on a large scale level and are typically taken on by large government-oriented institutions such as the world health organization, the EPA or the U.N. This article will take a look at the quality management barrier studies in a moment.

First we'll briefly talk about the obvious barriers to local and regional management of water sources. Anytime talk rises of watershed management, source water protection, or quality issues the public has come to expect meetings to be held with the eventual approval of more funding. Finance and funding are increasingly becoming a barrier to the management of water sources. Straightly put, the more we learn about our water the more we want to make it safer, which usually costs more money. Further along, these lines are the limitations of pubic understanding of water quality issues, as well as the competition for government funds and the risks involved in financing public works in the bond markets. On a global level, a true global water crisis is fast emerging.

Although the "global water crisis" tends to be viewed as a water quantity problem, water quality is increasingly being acknowledged as a central factor in the water crisis. Ironically, the fact that some five million people die every year related to water-borne diseases, mostly women and young children, was not enough to mobilize international action about water quality. It is only since United Nations agencies (WMO, 1997), 1998 meetings of the Commission on Sustainable Development, the General Assembly, and other organizations began looking at the overall contribution of massively polluted water to the global water crisis that the world has started to take water quality seriously.

The contribution of water quality to this crisis is mainly through the loss of a wide variety of beneficial uses, including large-scale ecological dysfunction and collapse, loss of economic opportunity, and its role in public health and poverty. Water quality is also intimately linked to the issue of sustainable food production.

In China, where an attempt was made to calculate the overall cost of water pollution to the national economy (Smil, 1996), the cost in 1990 was estimated to be 0.5% of GDP or, in dollar terms, more than the value of all exports from China in that year. Using data from Weng (1999) it is estimated that in 1998 the proportion of surface water in China that is so grossly polluted that it is unfit for any use is between 13 and 27% -- this in a country with a current mean annual water deficit of some 40 bm3. It is significant that many informed technical experts in this field are now of the opinion that remediation of water quality is now at least, if not more, economical than developing new sources of supply in many countries.

The water quality situation in developing countries is highly variable reflecting social, economic, and physical factors as well as state of development. And while not all countries are facing a crisis of water shortage, all have to a greater or lesser extent serious problems associated with degraded water quality. In some countries these are mainly associated with rivers, in others it is groundwater, and in yet others, it is large lakes; in many countries, it is all three. Because the range of polluting activities is highly variable from one country to another, and the nature of environmental and socio-economic impacts is equally variable, there is no "one-size-fits-all" solution. There are, however, some common denominators in the types of actions that are required for sustainable solutions.

The challenge for national and multilateral agencies, and the subject of this paper, is how to carry out water quality control and remediation programs that are cost-effective and sustainable. The key aspects of water quality management are the technical, institutional, legal, financial, and business issues, which should be included in national water policies. We also examine here the barriers to sustainable capacity development, especially as the pace of development and scope of water quality problems almost always grow faster than any ability to build and sustain in-country capacity. Regrettably, many countries including many developed countries, entrust data programs to agencies having data-collection as their primary mandate, with the result that water quality data programs exhibit a high degree of inertia and for which there are few identified users of the data.

The consequence is that such data programs tend to be data-driven rather than needs-driven. The usual outcome is that these programs become rapidly outdated by failing to shift program priorities towards modern pollution issues, are not subjected to periodic and critical technical review, are not cost-effective, and produce data that are rarely used. Such programs usually do not produce information that is useful for national planning, policy development, investment targeting, or for regulatory purposes. Water quality monitoring, as practiced in most developed countries, is based on the premise that with enough data, a well-designed program can answer most types of water quality management issues.

reverse osmosis banner square

This has been referred to as a data-rich or data-driven approach in which the objective is primarily to gather high-quality data. This has recently been challenged by the United States government which found that, despite years of expensive data programs, one cannot tell whether the nation's waters are getting better or worse. The consequence has been the realization that these mainly chemistry-focused programs are expensive, focus on data production rather than on data use, collect more data than is necessary, often do not reflect the types of data that managers need, and can be replaced by cheaper and more effective methods. The outcome in Canada and the United States has been a substantial shrinkage of conventional water quality data programs and an expansion of alternative approaches. Regrettably, this expensive and often ineffective chemistry-focused approach is the one now being adopted by developing countries and is being recommended by international and multilateral organizations.

Most developing countries are "data-poor" environments as well as being challenged by economic restrictions. This, together with a lack of sufficient technical and institutional capacity and often a poor scientific knowledge base, suggests that the conventional "western" approach to water quality monitoring and management is not well suited to many if not most developing countries. It is, therefore, timely to promote a new water quality paradigm that is more suitable, affordable, and sustainable in developing countries. The need for a new paradigm has been recognized in several parts of the developing world during the "Vision" exercise carried out by the Global Water Partnership and the World Water Council over the past two years.

Unfortunately, this situation tends not to be recognized by institutions such as the World Bank, UNDP, and others, and in many ODA programs, which tend to take for granted that what is needed is to reinforce existing programs and to build capacity along conventional "western" lines. What is missing is a critical appreciation of the profound shortcomings of conventional approaches and a failure to encourage national and sub-national agencies to re-appraise their programs relative to specific management needs for data, and to take advantage of more sustainable and cost-effective ways of doing business. Unfortunately, the current situation results in loan and ODA programs that focus on data programs in the more advanced developing countries tend to reinforce existing inefficiencies, and in less advanced developing countries, the effect is to reinforce aspirations for a "western-style" program that will lock the country into an expensive, usually unsustainable, and technically inferior (relative to current alternatives) program.

As examples of this situation, in a recent program of the World Bank in one large developing country, "modernization" of monitoring was largely linked to procurement of advanced equipment and laboratory infrastructure which local experts say is unlikely to have much impact on the types of data that are really needed for decision-making. The decisions appear to have been largely driven by in-country technical staff for who advanced facilities were out of reach and who had no responsibility for the larger issues of program efficiency or relevancy.

In contrast, a World Bank program in Mexico responded to the Mexican government's desire to fundamentally restructure the national water program with the result that water quality data program and related legal and institutional change, was measurably more efficient and effective and was able to effect a savings of 66% of the amount that the national agency originally requested to extend its existing program (Ongley and Barrios, 1997). The solution to this situation is a process now referred to as "modernization" of water quality programs (Ongley, 1997, 1998). This addresses policy, institutional, legal and technical components of water quality programs.

It also takes advantage of a large number of improvements in monitoring and assessment technologies that reduce costs, increase efficiencies, improve accuracy, and focus programs on meaningful data objectives. Because multilateral agencies have not, generally, recognized the seriousness of the data problem, even for their own lending programs, there remains a lack of written practical guidelines for carrying out the modernization process. Such funding problems continue to be a major barrier to improving the water quality and thus, the quality of life for millions of women and children across the world.

Reading next