Question of the Year

What Wicked Problem Faces Water Quality Management Over the Next 20 Years?

For the IWRA Special Issue of Water International (43:3, April 2018) on water quality governance, six IWRA experts responded to the above question with a range of difficult challenges facing water quality management.

Every year www.edge.org poses a “big question” to the world’s intellectual community. Taking inspiration from them, at a much more modest scale, we asked a number of IWRA members who are international scholars and practitioners concerned with water quality to give us their reflections on the question of “What is a wicked problem facing integrated water quality management over the next two decades?”

In the end we received six responses running a gamut of concerns, from problems of allocation, management and monitoring, to ensuring sustainable development in global agriculture and in rapidly urbanizing China, to the troubling presence of pharmaceutical wastes. It is increasingly obvious that water supply and water quality are not separate domains, and cannot be managed in isolation if there is to be any hope of addressing these wicked problems.

What IWRA Experts Tell Us

Blanca Jiménez CisnerosThe Complexity of Water Quality is an Old Problem for Water Managers, and Will Remain So.

Water quality, although seemingly a universally well understood concept, is a tricky one, as it only takes on a practical meaning when it is associated with specific uses of water. For instance, the quality of water that is needed to flush toilets, irrigate crops or make bricks is not necessarily one that is fit for human consumption or that would allow trout to live in a river. To be able to express this difference, and to ensure the required quality of water for any given use, we need to associate various parameters and define critical values for each of them. This is a challenging task, because the quality of water, the universal solvent, can contain more than 70,000 identified artificial substances and compounds, any of which can render water deleterious for one use or another.

The process of judging the quality of water is complex. Take “drinking water”. When we ask if the water is safe to drink, we may hope for a simple answer: “yes” or “no”. In the mind of a water utility staff or a policy maker, however, the answer is far from clear. Each country uses a number of parameters, typically 40 to 70 in number, to define the drinking water standard. A clear “yes” would mean that the water you wish to drink meets all the defined parameters, so by the given standard, is considered to be of appropriate quality so that a human body can safely consume it. But in many cases not all the parameters relevant to human health have been measured in the water that fills the glass in our hands.

Scientists know that water can contain tens of thousands of substances and compounds that are generally not controlled by a standard or norm. Yet to create a standard that can be implemented, local authorities and experts have to limit the parameters they monitor: firstly, to those that most frequently create a quality problem (e.g. water-related health issues) in the given country’s setting (this is most often considered at national level); and secondly, to those that are technically and economically (and sometimes politically) measurable and controllable. Both restrictions often leave out substances and compounds that may be toxic at the local level or under specific conditions. To complicate matters further, the actual health effects of many if not most substances are not well understood. Advances in medical knowledge can lead to significant revisions in allowable thresholds.

At the same time, it is clear that water for consumption must always contain certain molecules beyond its basic H2O. Our body needs some of the compounds commonly found in water to assimilate the water and to function well. Purified water is not healthy for humans to drink.

Now, let’s analyze the concept of the quality of the ambient water of a country. Without defining a specific use of water, how could we provide a valid statement on a matter this complex? In this case, water practitioners usually consider that water of good quality must be one that can sustain aquatic ecosystems (defined as a “use” that has to be protected). This is a good approach when we talk about the quality of surface water, like lakes and rivers. In this case, however, as with drinking water, it is often not enough to define a list of parameters and values that should not be exceeded, but to identify as well those substances that have to be present in water and to define their critical threshold concentrations below which the quality of water would be improper for its purpose. For instance, if levels of dissolved oxygen are too low (normally below 4 mg/L), fish die.

The quality of groundwater is a bit different. In aquifers, water is in close contact with different types of soil. And one of the properties of water that we know well is that it is an excellent solvent. Thus, the water in aquifers tends to dissolve compounds of the soil. Even though this is a natural process, in some cases aquifers are naturally “polluted” with substances, such as arsenic or fluorides, at levels well above the concentration levels that are acceptable for drinkable water. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), arsenic is naturally present at high levels in the groundwater of a number of countries, including Argentina, Bangladesh, Chile, China, India, Mexico, and the United States of America. If this contaminated water is not treated, it can be a major health risk, whether it is used as drinking water, for irrigation or in food preparation. Long-term exposure to inorganic arsenic can lead to chronic arsenic poisoning, characterized most often by skin lesions and skin cancer. The number of people affected can be very high. In Bangladesh alone, it is estimated that more than 45 million people are at the risk of being exposed to arsenic concentrations that are higher than the national standard.

Ensuring that the water we drink will not harm us and that lakes, rivers and oceans can sustain ecosystems have been wicked management problems to date. They will remain so for at least the next two decades.

Tom SooUnlocking the Potential for Using Different Water Qualities as a Complementary Resource

There are two main ways the world can cope with the looming shadow of water scarcity. One is the traditional method of developing new sources of freshwater of adequate quality. The other is by better managing and using water quality, including by matching different qualities to different uses. According to reports by the OECD and the United Nations, water withdrawals are going to be increasingly unable to keep up with demand. In response to growing pressures from changing demographics, climates, sectoral demand and other changes inherent to the earth’s cycles, water managers must adapt the ways we manage water resources. If they do not, our current trajectory shall lead to an unacceptable situation of stress on the planet and many of our social and economic systems. The Water Resources Institute estimates that some thirty-three countries will face extremely high water stress by 2040 (Luo et al., 2015). Increasing water volumes on its own is not enough, an abundance of water is of little benefit if its quality means that we impose limits on our ability to use it. The Indo-Gangetic Basin for example, accounts for a quarter of the world’s groundwater withdrawals, and although its water levels are stable or rising, extensive groundwater contamination means that less and less is available for potable uses (MacDonald et al., 2016). Viewing treated or untreated water as a potential resource for some uses according to its varying levels of quality is thus an essential way to complement our efforts to combat water scarcity.

More efficient use and waste reduction can increase water productivity. However, better matching water quality to each type of use can unlock further potential. Leaders and water managers no longer have the luxury of overlooking the potential of systematically and intelligently using water of different qualities as part of supply strategies to satisfy demand from multiple uses. Yet, we know very little about how to go about this, and are therefore a long way from being able to fully benefit from this approach.

The potential of wastewater reuse in agriculture is arguably the most evident example [i]. Agriculture currently uses 70% of global water resources, yet in a context of competing demands between the urban and rural sectors, and where a high volume of wastewater is generated by cities, wastewater is reported as accounting for only a small fraction (1.5% to 6.6%) of the quantity used in irrigation (Sato et al., 2013). Adding further complexity to the scenario is the fact that whilst less than 10% of the world’s collected wastewater receives any treatment, many developing countries use untreated drainage and waste waters for irrigation anyway, often because there is no alternative. Consequently, while these waters may provide farmers with perceived or real advantages they may also carry dangers to individuals’ health as well as inherent social, economic and environmental risks (Wichelns & Drechsel, 2011). Besides social and economic reasons, part of the blame lies with the lack of coherent frameworks to mobilise wastewater. Many countries, even relatively wealthy ones, do not have a sufficiently coherent institutional setting to address this problem. In southern Europe for example, only four out of fifteen countries have wastewater reuse regulations (Lavrnić et al., 2017).

It is difficult to claim that there are sufficient global water resources when, as a result of low quality, many millions still lack access to drinking water of an appropriate level. Action to improve the world’s use of waters will not be easy due to the many financial, political and institutional challenges. However, matching water qualities from other sources such as greywaters or non-conventional waters to different uses can help to address scarcity. Rapidly increasing urban populations and the rise of coastal mega cities provides some opportunity to apply this approach. For example, every year in Hong Kong, an “extra” 270 million cubic metres of freshwater is made available for human consumption because authorities have created a network to supply eight out of ten Hong Kongers with seawater for toilet flushing. Industrial water requirements vary from low quality cooling waters, to ultra-pure waters for manufacturing electronic circuits. In this sense, the industrial sector has already gone a long way towards matching quality to use. Its success points to the potential efficiencies that could be realised both in industry and elsewhere. The Public Utilities Board of Singapore claims that their successful NEWater system accounts for 40% of the nation’s current needs by recycling water mainly for industry but also for supply to households in dry times. According to the International Energy Agency, energy production consumed 66 billion m3 of water during 2010 and is on a steep upward trajectory towards an increase of 85% by 2035. The water resources required can be of various qualities for the various stages of energy production from extraction of resources (hydraulic fracturing for example uses water mixed with sand and chemicals) through to refining, distribution and electricity generation itself (water is often sourced from the sea for cooling coastal nuclear plants). Yet many reports aimed at influencing policy such as the 2010 Water for Energy report of the World Energy Council or the Water 2012 World Energy Outlook of the International Energy Agency hardly mention the range of water qualities usable in energy production, preferring to focus almost exclusively on the demand for freshwater.

Water is essential to all development. The economic, social and environmental benefits of mobilising waters of appropriate qualities would seem obvious. Yet surprisingly, the current state of research is still unable to comprehensively identify the value of using appropriate qualities of water for each need. A study in 2013 looked at the three aspects of wastewater: generation, treatment and reuse in 181 countries and found that only 55 countries had data on all three, whilst 69 countries had some data and 57 countries had no data at all (Sato et al., 2013). Other studies from UNEP on water quality guidelines for ecosystems as well as by IWRA and IWA on water quality guidelines for different uses have started to improve knowledge in this area. However, we sorely need a much more comprehensive understanding of the effective use of water of different qualities as a resource.

There is a massive untapped potential in matching water qualities to use in different sectors. To realise the full benefits of this potential, several paradigm shifts are required from the current focus on freshwater as primary supply for all purposes: societal paradigms for consumption; governance paradigms for policy and regulation; and professional paradigms for water management. Existing freshwater resources are limited and different water qualities are a reality. Recognising, understanding and effectively using waters of all qualities as potential resources will help us to solve the water scarcity problem.

[i] For example: the World Bank website, https://blogs.worldbank.org/opendata/chart-globally-70-freshwater-used-agriculture; the OECD website, http://www.oecd.org/agriculture/water-use-in-agriculture.htm; or the Pacific Institute website, http://pacinst.org/issues/water-food-and-agriculture

References

  • Lavrnić, S., Zapater-Pereyra, M., Mancini., M. L. 2017. Water Scarcity and Wastewater Reuse Standards in Southern Europe: Focus on Agriculture, Water Air Soil Pollution 228:251. DOI 10.1007:s11270-017-3425-2.
  • Luo, T., Young, R., and Reig, P. 2015. Aqueduct Projected Water Stress Country Rankings (Technical Note). Retrieved from World Resources Institute website: www.wri.org/publication/aqueduct-projected-water-stresscountry-rankings [Accessed 10 September 2017]
  • MacDonald, A.M., Bonsor, H.C., Ahmed, K.M., Burgess, W.G., Basharat, M., Calow, R.C., Dixit, A., Foster, S.S.D., Gopal K., Lapworth, D.J., Lark, R.M., Moench, M., Mukherjee, A., Rao, M.S., Shamsudduha, M., Smith, L., Taylor, R.G., Tucker, J., van Steenbergen, F., and Yadav, S. K. 2016. Groundwater quality and depletion in the Indo-Gangetic Basin mapped from in situ observations. Nature Geoscience. Advance Online Publication. DOI: 10.1038/NGEO2791
  • Sato, T., Qadir, M., Yamamoto, S., Endo, T., Zahoor, A. 2013. Global, regional, and country level need for data on wastewater generation, treatment and use. Agricultural Water Management. 130 (2013) 1-13
  • Wichelns, D., and Drechsel, P. 2011. Meeting the challenge of wastewater irrigation: economics, finance, business opportunities and methodological constraints. Water International. 36:4, 415-419, DOI: 10.1080/02508060.2011.593732

Rabi H. Mohtar – The Wicked Problem of Soil and Water Quality

The prospect of using the business-as-usual model for primary resource management over the next 20-30 years looks grim, with a projected 40% gap between aggregate demand and supply of water. Agriculture, already the largest user, would require more than 100% of the available water supply in order to meet the 50% or greater expected increase in food demand. This is compounded by the fact that no one predicts business-as-usual for precipitation, with projections centering on a fall of 10-30% on average, with significant uncertainty and variability, both inter-temporally and spatially. This vision of the future is well-known. What is not well recognized is that in addition we will no longer have the same quantity of land available for agriculture, and that the quality of the soil is projected to decline. We are left with a very wicked problem; one that has no solution.

Most non-point source pollution is due to agricultural production: as agricultural activity increases and intensifies, this pollution will worsen unless serious efforts are made now to decouple agricultural production and soil and water pollution.

At the same time, we must recognize that the soil, a naturally organized medium, is at the core, at the very heart, of water and food security. It is where water, nutrients, and air circulate. It is where root distribution and respiration happen. It filters water and reduces or eliminates the cost of treatment of our surface water supply.

The main function of the soil is to continue to provide sufficient food for the world’s growing population. Several factors affect the ability of soil to accomplish its function. These include but are not limited to proper soil management practices and land use such as tillage, soil additives and cropping system; and soil and water management practices such as irrigation using fresh and alternative sources of brackish, grey and wastewaters. So the question becomes: how can we evaluate the impacts on soil function of these factors in order to identify the best design and mitigation measures? To answer the question, we need to appreciate that the unique organization of the soil medium makes it possible for soil to perform several functions, and we must adequately and accurately represent that organization in modeling approaches.

We also need to recognize that soil security and water security are critical to achieving the post 2015 Sustainable Development Goals agenda. Implementation of that agenda impacts water, food, climate, energy nexus goals. The wicked problem in non-point source pollution arises with the challenge to produce more food under growing constraints of water, land, and climate – where the risk of non-point source pollution increases. Many communities will find themselves in a tight tradeoff between increasing land and water activity and maintaining soil, water, and eco-system health: this includes avoiding nutrient pollution and maintaining bio-diversity, and eco-system services.

To make the optimal tradeoff between increasing food production and improving or maintaining soil and water quality requires that we:

  1. know the value of both human health and eco-system health; this will allow us to quantify the effect of agricultural production on soil, water quality and the quality of human life and develop the right policies and guidelines for this complex system inclusive of economic as well as human and ecosystem indicators;
  2. understand soil dynamics and their role in filtering chemicals out of the water supply; this will allow us to explain and quantify the linkages between soil properties and its behavior;
  3. understand the multi-scale, hierarchical hydrologic system based on soil structure; this will allow us to transfer knowledge across scales from the pedostructure to landscape scales, recognizing that interventions at the local scale can be linked to higher scale and vice versa. Temporally, processes are often observed and modeled at the short-term scale, but estimates are also needed for the long-term. The linkage and integration of the formulations at different scales has not yet been adequately addressed.

Only after all the above is done can we make the optimal tradeoffs and solve this wicked problem. To reiterate: understanding the role of water and food security requires recognition of the soil as a natural and hierarchically organized medium. Quantitative approaches to studying the long term impacts of agro-environmental practices on soil functioning are therefore urgently needed. Last but not least: valuing water, soil, and water quality are vital to the sustainability of food production systems.

Gabriel Eckstein – The Wicked Problem of Pharmaceuticals in Our Waters

Pharmaceuticals and their wastes plague our water. Research conducted over the past two decades demonstrates that antibiotics, mood stabilizers, sex hormones, blood thinners, beta blockers, and numerous over-the-counter medications have entered our rivers and lakes, groundwater and soils, wastewater treatment plants, and even our public drinking water supplies. A 2013 study in the United States found at least twenty-five different active pharmaceutical ingredients in the waste stream of fifty large wastewater treatment plants nationwide. A 2016 global study conducted through a comprehensive literature review revealed that 631 different pharmaceutical substances were present in 71 countries covering all continents, some at levels exceeding predicted no-effect concentrations (aus der Beek, et.al., 2016).

More troubling, however, are studies indicating unintended exposure to these substances, whether individually or in synergistic combinations, may have adverse human health impacts. While inconclusive, they suggest chronic exposure could contribute to testicular and breast cancers, reproductive abnormalities, early puberty and decreased sperm count (Eckstein, 2015). Unfortunately, most of the studies are based on acute exposures, while research on short-term exposures to varying levels of individual pharmaceuticals or pharmaceutical combinations are lacking.

In contrast to human exposure, many aquatic species are exposed to pharmaceutical pollutants throughout their lifetime and over multiple generations. As a result, studies on the health impacts of such exposure on aquatic species are considerably more categorical. The evidence shows that low-level, chronic exposure to certain pharmaceuticals or their residues, including antidepressants and estrogen, has led to adverse biological effects, including the feminization of males, masculinization of females, impaired reproductive capacity, abnormal sexual development, and impaired ability to heal (Eckstein, 2015).

While certain pharmacological substances, like estrogen, can occur naturally in the environment, most are anthropogenic in origin. Pharmaceutical pollutants can reach the environment from multiple sources. The more obvious include the improper handling of pharmaceutical products by pharmaceutical manufacturers, health care facilities, pharmacies, veterinary services, and individual households. Less obvious sources include human and animal feces and urine, bath water, coroner office wastes, leachates from landfill containing pharmaceutical wastes, and irrigation water from reclaimed wastewater (Eckstein, 2015).

Although human excretion is regarded as the main source of pharmaceutical pollutants in the environment, the relative contribution of each source to environmental loadings is still unknown. Nevertheless, the presence of these drugs in the environment should not be surprising. In 2016, the global community spent USD $1.13 trillion on prescription medicines (based on wholesale prices); Americans alone accounted for 40% of those expenditures (Berkrot 2016). Moreover, most drugs are designed to persist while in the body in order to reach the organ or area targeted for pharmacological benefit. That persistence translates into a resistance to natural degradation in the environment. One study indicated that 95% of pharmaceuticals assessed in Europe are not readily biodegradable (European Environment Agency 2010).

Treating for these pollutants and wastes after they enter the sewage or wastewater system or the environment is costly and out of the financial reach of most municipalities and wastewater and drinking water treatment operators. As a result, communities, health care specialists, and environmental professionals around the world are increasingly troubled about the ability of municipalities to ensure safe freshwater for their residents and for the surrounding natural environment.

Few governments around the world officially recognize the multitude of concerns that have been raised by experts in the field regarding exposure to pharmaceutical pollutants. And even fewer have developed broad management, mitigation, or disposal prevention strategies to address the challenges posed by the growing presence of these contaminants. Currently, no nation has implemented laws designed comprehensively to respond to the concerns associated with pharmaceuticals in the environment. A primary challenge of targeting pharmaceutical wastes and pollutants, especially in the aquatic environment, is that the problem typically crosses multiple statutory and institutional jurisdictions and authorities. Moreover, in those countries where some efforts have been made, most have targeted pharmaceuticals after they have entered the environment. Few have focused on preventing the improper disposal of pharmaceutical products.

In the United States, various federal and state agencies have attempted to apply disparate environmental statutes, medical facility regulations, drug collection laws, and even criminal laws to pharmaceuticals wastes and pollutants in the waste stream. Depending on where it may be found, pharmaceutical wastes can be subject to the Resources Conservation and Recovery Act, Clean Water Act, or Safe Drinking Water Act, or the jurisdiction of local or state police, or the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. Likewise, in Europe, nations and agencies have sought to tackle the concerns under the rubric of the Water Framework Directive, Drinking Water Directive, legislation focusing on managing chemicals and medicinal products, and other mechanisms. The European Commission is presently tasked with developing a strategic approach to water pollution by pharmaceuticals and to propose mechanisms to reduce their release into the water. That effort, however, has been delayed.

The presence of pharmaceutical wastes and pollutants in our water and broader natural environment is a wicked problem. The challenges are as much political and legal as they are technical. Certainly, how we respond could affect the availability of much-needed medications. Nevertheless, whether we confront this threat sooner than later could impact countless human lives and have unprecedented consequences for our environment.

References

  • Berkrot, Bill (2016). Global prescription drug spend seen at $1.5 trillion in 2021: report, Reuters, Dec. 5, 2016, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-pharmaceuticals-spending/global-prescription-drug-spend-seen-at-1-5-trillion-in-2021-report-idUSKBN13V0CB
  • Eckstein, Gabriel (2015). Drugs on Tap: Managing Pharmaceuticals in Our Nation’s Waters, New York University Environmental Law Journal, Vol. 23, pp. 36-90, http://ssrn.com/abstract=2628047
  • European Environment Agency (2010). Pharmaceuticals in the environment. Technical report No 1/2010, https://www.eea.europa.eu/publications/pharmaceuticals-in-the-environment-result-of-an-eea-workshop/file
  • aus der Beek, Tim, et.al., (2016). Pharmaceuticals in the environment — Global occurrences and perspectives, Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, Vol. 35(4), pp. 823–835

Shaofeng Jia – Threats to Water Quality are a More Serious Challenge to Water Resources Security Than Diminishing Supply

The total available water quantity on Earth has remained more or less the same for millions of years. At a country level, average water resources seldom change more than 20% within one century. China’s three assessments of total surface water supply, done in 1958, in 1980 and in the 2000s all yielded 2.71〜2.78 trillion km3. The hydrological cycle works day in and day out, year by year, century by century. Anthropogenic pollution is another matter.

Integrated water quality management is necessary but difficult

The diversity of sources and types of pollutants, technologies involved, shareholders, policies and regulations, render integrated water quality management both necessary and difficult. The number one difficulty may be identifying polluters, especially where they are clustered or are discharging surreptitiously. For regulators, it’s a very big burden to supervise a large number of polluters, especially when the latter find it cheaper to bribe regulatory staff than to stop discharging wastes. In developing countries, the public finds it very difficult to get detailed information on water quality, because on the one hand, the detection of many pollutants requires complicated tests that only professionals can do using expensive equipment, while the institutions who are responsible for monitoring water quality often do not want to publish relevant information in order to escape their responsibility — a dereliction of duty. It is urgently necessary to enhance pollution source monitoring and the open access of monitoring results.

New technologies provide good opportunities

The rapid development of technologies, such as advanced and low cost sensors for water quality, automatic data transmission and processing, and the internet, have made full time and comprehensive coverage of water quality monitoring feasible, as well as timely feedback. A good example is the National Urban Black and Malodorous Water (黑臭水体) Supervision and Administration Platform of China. This platform has one part for public supervision which can be accessed by the internet and mobile websites. Everybody can check and report if black and malmalodorous water has been recorded within this system, if a remediation plan has been arranged, and if it has been rehabilitated as planned. A responsible person must give feedback within a stipulated time.

The enforcement of regulations is most important for developing countries

Nearly everyone recognizes the need for environmental protection. So almost every country, including the economically least developed, has formulated and promulgated environmental protection laws. But the problem is enforcement. Often, especially but not only in developing countries, environmental law exists only on paper, not in real life. Effective enforcement remains a wicked problem.

In China, a recent effective measure is that the central government sends high ranking environmental teams to investigate whether local governments have strictly implemented national environmental legislation and policies. This has resulted in punishment of some high ranking local government officials. The punishments, including criticism or serious warnings, go into their dossiers and can have career implications.

Punishments should be severe enough to deter polluters

In principle, violators of water quality protection laws should be required to pay all direct and indirect costs of pollution, plus a penalty. China’s environmental protection law provides that those who suffer direct losses may demand compensation, but there is no provision to recover indirect losses. Furthermore, until recently only those directly affected by pollution had standing to sue polluters. The latest 2014 revision of the environmental protection law of China has extended the right of litigation to environmental NGOs.

POPs are a challenge for both developing and developed countries

Although the above mainly concerns developing countries, China in particular, there are wicked water quality problems facing economies at all levels of development as well. Organic pollution and the befouled water it produces, as well as most heavy metal pollution are largely in the past for developed economies, but persistent organic pollutants (POPs), especially environmental hormones and those produced by pharmaceutical and personal care products are proving hard to control both in developing and developed countries. POPs are widely used in agriculture as pesticide, in industry as heat exchange medium, intermediate and by products, and in everyday life as personal care products. POPs disturb the reproduction and development of living beings, resulting in reproductive failure and developmental deformities, even cancer and extinction. Most environmental hormones are highly toxic, persistent in the environment, and bio-accumulate in the food chain, at the top of which are human beings. POPs are also mostly hydrophilic — they mix easily with water and are transported with it.

Because of the diversity and dispersion of the sources of POPs, they are difficult to control. Limitations on producers, such as bans on producing and selling of some products, may be an effective way to limit POPs, but they are most effective when there are good substitutes. Finding those substitutes or, in many cases, changing lifestyles and modes of production, will indeed be a wicked problem over the next two decades.

Feng Hu – How to Balance Economic Development and Water Protection – A Wicked Problem

In becoming the world’s factory, China has paid a heavy cost in water quality. To ensure continued growth, China is undergoing an economic transition towards a higher value-added and consumption-led economy. How well it balances economic development and water protection in the next two decades will be important for the country and have implications for the global economy. This is likely to be a wicked problem, not only for China but also many other developing countries.

Over the past two decades, rapid economic growth and urbanisation, coupled with fragmented environmental governance and barriers in policy implementation from central to local level, have led to serious deterioration of water quality across China. According to the latest government report, despite overall improvement, surface water quality worsened in a few major rivers such as the Hai River and Liao River. Groundwater pollution also persists.

The extent and scale of pollution led the government to declare ‘War on Pollution’ in early 2014. Since then, detailed action-plans to tackle air, water and soil pollution have been set, and the amended Environmental Protection Law has been in force since the beginning of 2015. Various actions to rein in water pollution point have deadlines by 2020. Clearly, the current five-year plan period (2016-2020) is key.

Managing water quality is essentially about managing the economy and the impacts of an increasingly urbanised population. Industries and cities are two main point sources of wastewater, accounting for respectively 27.1% and 72.7% of the total discharge of 73.53 billion tonnes in 2015. 45.5% of industrial sources were from the top 4 polluting industries including chemicals, paper & pulp, textiles, and coal mining & washing. Geographically, 40% of wastewater discharge came from 5 provinces which also have the largest economies, representing 40% of the national GDP and 31.8% of China’s population.

For China, a slower GDP growth has become the ‘New Normal’. The economy is shifting towards more added values from industries and services: in 2016, the tertiary industry already accounted for over half (51.6%) of the GDP6. Traditional manufacturing such as textiles faces a double whammy, not only economically but also environmentally in order to meet higher compliance requirements. If China wants to become a well-developed society by 2020, it has to increase the share of industries with higher added value such as advanced machinery and IT. This is why there is the promotion of ‘Strategic Emerging Industries’ and ‘Made in China 2025’ strategy. Compared to traditional ones, most of these new industries are less resource intensive and also less polluting.

Meanwhile, population growth has slowed down to 0.5% in 2016, less than half of the world average of 1.2% and also slower than countries like India (1.1%), US (0.7%), Indonesia (1.1%) and Brazil (0.8%)7. Over 57% of the population are now living in cities6. By 2020, it is expected to rise to 60%. Pressure on municipal wastewater treatment will likely increase.

With various factors at play, it won’t be an easy task to balance economic growth and pollution control in a rather short period, even twenty years. There will be trade-offs. To find a fine balance, a holistic approach is necessary in water policy making. This means that water quality management needs to be embedded into regional planning. Not only should water quality be integrated with water resource management, it should also be considered together with industrial transformation, food security, urban planning and climate impacts. Such integration should be cross-regional, especially for upstream and downstream regions that share water systems.

We have seen such holistic thinking in the development plans of key regions such as the Yangtze River Economic Belt (YREB) and the Pearl River Basin. For instance, a clear goal has been set to fully integrate and coordinate socio-economic development of the three regions of the YREB (i.e. Upper Reaches, Middle Reaches and the Yangtze River Delta) by 2030, to ensure overall water quality and ecological protection along the river.

According to the newly amended Water Pollution Prevention & Control Law, the environmental protection department within the State Council will act as the responsible party for setting water quality monitoring standards and coordinating unified monitoring stations and information disclosure. This will hopefully solve the discrepancies between various standards and data produced by different ministries.

Moreover, the new amendments also promote a national pollution permit system and the ‘River Chief’ system to facilitate more integrated water management. According to the State Council’s implementation plan, all the point pollution sources will be required to hold such a permit by 2020. The first targeted industries are thermal power, and paper and pulp. By the end of 2017, all the companies in key industries identified in Action Plan for Water Pollution Prevention and Control will be covered. The ‘River Chief’ system holds the highest-ranked government official accountable at each administrative level. This will help improve cross-department cooperation and facilitate more holistic decision making.

Furthermore, other innovative mechanisms are also progressing. For instance, eco-compensation schemes are being promoted in key river basins between upstream and downstream. We have already seen progress on the Dongjiang River, an important water source for several cities in the Pearl River Delta. Two provinces, Guangdong and Jiangxi, signed an agreement in October 2016 to equally contribute RMB100 million every year to protect water quality of the river they share.

These are positive steps. A holistic and integrated approach to manage economy together with water is a must-do for China. Only by doing so can it ensure its long-term prosperity and water security. In this process, not only the government, but both researchers and the private sector can play important roles. We can all make smarter decisions today to make tomorrow’s water problems less wicked.

Reproduced with permission from Water International, Vol. 43, No. 3, 349-360


Further IWRA Member Responses & Discussion

This was just the beginning of drawing on the wisdom of our membership. We have opened up the question to the full IWRA membership, partners and supporters for their responses and discussion. These were the responses received:


20th June 2018 at 11:03 am – NeilG
Linkage of water quality and public health – Water quality deterioration from point and non-point sources continues to be a serious problem, especially from biological and chemical parameters. It is impossible to monitor and even characterize water quality adequately in all situations, and impacts on public health are not well understood or reported.

20th June 2018 at 11:30 am – Bernard
Valuing water as an economic resource in a developing economy: Any way forward? Failure to place natural waters at par with other precious economic resources remains an affliction in water security efforts in developing countries. The severity of this wicked threat is further aggravated by corresponding failure in water education. Urgent action is inevitable.

25th June 2018 at 11:11 am – D.L. Marrin
@Bernard – As a common resource, water has been undervalued in both developing and developed countries. Besides outdated management and economic policies, the common perception of water as just another commodity has contributed its current status worldwide. Water quality is a major impediment, not only to human and environmental health, but also to water scarcity as much of the water that is available is not appropriate for uses required by developing countries. In addition to being an water education issue, it is also an issue with regard to the ways that water is used to produce food and energy.

2nd July 2018 at 11:04 am – rosacam
@NeilG – An important issue, it has a cost. How to pay for it? How to achieve better technologies than could attend this issue?
@Bernard – To access potable water has a cost. How to pay for it? The tariff should include the protection of watersheds and underground water.
Also it is important to promote adequate technologies for waste disposal water, or promote technologies to use it.
How to protect the underground water with a mass solid construction almost everywhere?

15th July 2018 at 11:10 am – Hua Xie
@Bernard – While water quality degradation has become a global environmental problem, developing countries will probably be faced with more challenges in conserving quality of water environment. Faster population and economic growths are projected for developing countries. The famous Kuznets curve states that environmental/water quality in an economy tends to deteriorate until income per capita of the economy reaches certain level.
Of course, the situations in different regions of developing world vary significantly. Take agricultural nutrient pollution as example. Severe nutrient pollution has been observed in some developing countries, such as China and India. Through introducing modern agricultural production technologies, notably the intensive use of fertilizers, China and India successfully intensified their food production system, but at expense of widespread water quality deterioration. On the other hand, in other regions of the developing world, such as Sub-Saharan Africa, agriculture hasn’t taken off or is taking off. It might be still possible for them to learn from other countries’ experience to protect their water environment from pollution during the course of economic development. This is a great challenge for water managers/policy makers in those regions and even in the whole international communities.

18th July 2018 at 11:20 am – Carla_Toranzo
A contribution from experiences in Latin American emerging countries, specifically the case of Peru
The wicked problem is “bad management”; it´s critical and it´s getting worse, 3 of the main pillars of this problem are:
1. Informality and lack of urban planning. Its consequence: a permanent generation of new houses in human settlements, houses without water or sanitation services. This situation has become the normal dynamic of the cities, mainly in the capital city, the mega-city of Lima*. This lack of water and sanitation services puts the health of the inhabitants of these homes, and of the citizens in general, at high risk.
2. Lack of clarity in the functions and responsibilities of the several entities which are responsible of Water and Sanitation in the country, such as the City´s W&S utility, the National Water Authority, the Ministry of Housing, Construction and Sanitation, and the Ministry of Environment, among others.
3. Lack of technical and financial capacities of the public sector to accomplish with efficiently meet the water and sanitation services for citizens. The sector has economic resources, the problem is that they take too much time to be used and are not used efficiently. Currently it is common to find water and sanitation civil works paralyzed due to management problems that culminate in legal problems.
* Lima has the following water supply and sanitation characteristics: (a) the water supply network covers 80.6% of the population of Lima (around 10 million), leaving 19.4% of the population, mainly in the hilly parts of the town, without access to the drinking water network; (b) about 77% of the population is connected to the public sewer network; (c) only about 17% of the wastewaters receive some form of treatment; (d) the major part of wastewater is discharged either into the rivers or directly into the Pacific Ocean; and (e) only 5% of the treated wastewater is reused for irrigation (LIWA, 2016).

20th July 2018 at 12:32 pm – Sisira Withanachchi
How do different set of laws and governance principles frame for an effective water quality governance?

20th July 2018 at 12:47 pm – Zharin fahra
How to manage the water qulity and quantities in district nowhere, which is they not have any resource to manage all..
Such as Awlr and the rain station..

20th July 2018 at 1:30 pm – M. Wajid Ijaz
1) @Gabriel_Eckstein Nexus of public health, water quality and pharma industry will be challenging specially removal of antibiotic resistant bacteria.
2) Depletion of surface water resources will lead to over exploitation of groundwater and/or seawater resources, in either case the safe and unhazardous disposal of rejected brackish water from any treatment facility (especially RO plants) is and will be one of the great determinant to water quality management.

20th July 2018 at 2:50 pm – Peter
The possibility of heightened imbalances between development and water usage over the next 20 year. History has revealed how improvement in technologies and practices have affected water quality. Judging from that it is obvious that there would be new technologies, new practices in various sectors in the next decade and two, and without careful consideration of their effect on water, the problems remain irrepressibly worse in the future.

20th July 2018 at 3:08 pm – Dorice
The wicked problem especially in developing countries is impunity leading to unregulated water service providers and vendors. You just don’t know the quality of water!!!!

20th July 2018 at 3:54 pm – Malcolm Gander
I would like to point out the problem of increasing reductions of available water for irrigation and groundwater supplies due to decreasing recharge, all brought about by Climate Change.
Climate change continues to reduce:
a) groundwater supplies, which accounts for about 45 percent of global drinking water, due to decreases in recharge; and
b) irrigation water supplies, which accounts for about 70 percent of total global water withdrawals, due to decreases in mountain snowpack and shrinking glaciers (Union of Concerned Scientists 2018).
Groundwater supply reductions are being caused by the increased occurrence of severe rainstorms, which results in more surface water runoff and less recharge to aquifers.
In addition to decreased irrigation water supplies, year-over-year higher temperatures and short lived heat waves are resulting in increased irrigation water demand, even if total precipitation is unchanged over the course of a growing season (IPCC 2007).

20th July 2018 at 5:00 pm – Ramadan Marne
Human beings on earth planet see water bodies as dumping sites. We have seen the level of pollution and contamination of sea water, lakes, streams and rivers by our daily activities. Also ,the ground is seen as a place where we can hide anything.those hidden things such as human bodies, feces in traditional pit latrines, pharmaceuticals wastes, buried wastes from oil, factories, industries end up contaminating our precious groundwater through seepage. For me,the wicked problem that faces the water quality management is the pollution and contamination of water resources by humans and the challenges of climate change which contribute to the diminishing water quality management.

23rd July 2018 at 8:15 am – Mihretab1
In a developing country, the development of industries and agricultural practice imposes pollution on the water bodies. Even if there are initiatives underway to improve the water quality, the main constraint will be “The wicked water quality monitoring system”.

23rd July 2018 at 11:53 am – Daru Nurisma Pramukti
The wicked problem, especially in developing countries, is “public awareness and weak law enforcement regarding water resources”. In the last 20 years, the habits and paradigms of society in maintaining water quality have changed. Stabilization of a country’s government encourages the idea that sustainable management of water resources is the task of the government, it undermines public awareness in maintaining water quality, both surface and non-surface water. We understand that it is necessary to involve the community in managing water resources, for example in Indonesia having the Citarum River which was once the cleanest river, but in the last decade the dirtiest river due to the behavioral pattern of the community that the river is a very flexible dumping place, dumped into the river will be transported downstream (sea), the paradigm must be addressed.

23rd July 2018 at 9:39 pm – JUAN BERMUDEZ
In Spanish – UNO DE LOS PRINCIPALES PROBLEMAS ES EL CRECIMIENTO DEMOGRÁFICO QUE VIVIMOS, YA QUE CON EL AUMENTO EN LA DEMANDA DEL VITAL LIQUIDO LAS TECNOLOGÍAS ACTUALES SE VERÁN REBASADAS PARA ENFRENTAR LA CONTAMINACIÓN DE RÍOS Y EL TRATAMIENTO DE AGUAS RESIDUALES EN LA MAYORÍA DE LOS PUEBLOS Y CIUDADES
In English – ONE OF THE MAIN PROBLEMS IS THE DEMOGRAPHIC GROWTH WE LIVE IN, SINCE WITH THE INCREASE IN THE DEMAND OF THE VITAL LIQUID THE CURRENT TECHNOLOGIES WILL BE OVERLOADED TO DEAL WITH THE CONTAMINATION OF RIVERS AND THE TREATMENT OF WASTEWATER IN MOST CITIES AND SOCIETIES

24th July 2018 at 3:59 pm – Amrisha Pandey
Challenge is to treat the waste water at the source using tailor made waste management techniques!!

25th July 2018 at 3:22 am – Jessica Rodrigues
Micropollutants in our waters, especially microplastic debris, antibiotics and steroid hormones , which can all harm micro-organisms even at trace concentrations.

25th July 2018 at 8:36 am – Ray Earle, Ireland
Coincident Climate Change, Economic, Financial and Overwhelming and Other Impossible to Predict Coincident Shocks and Accidents such Power Failure and loss of IoT capabilities—– No Regrets or Bets Analysis and Modelling will not prepare us for this despite laudable UN-SDGs

25th July 2018 at 6:35 pm – Sofía E. Garrido Hoyos
The lack of sustainable government, economic, educational and social policies to ensure the efficient management of water for human consumption from the point of view of quality and quantity, otherwise there is no solution to ensure this resource for the most needy.

26th July 2018 at 3:17 pm – Y. Shang
The wicked problem of europhication in our lakes and reservoirs

29th July 2018 at 6:16 am – Lilian del Castillo
Generally speaking, in the domestic field water quality management faces lack of monitoring, law enforcement weakness and the reluctance of industrial, agricultural and household users to adopt water friendly practices, while in the transboundary field faces the lack of jurisdiction of national courts to address water quality issues from foreign sources.
Share the concern about pharmaceuticals in water.

31st July 2018 at 8:51 pm – NICOLAS PINEDA-PABLOS
1. How to make effective and affordable the human right to water and sanitation in rural areas of developing countries?
2. How to overcome patrimonialistic management of water services in non-democratic regimes?
3. How to make agriculture use and pay for the treatment of urban wastwaters?

2nd August 2018 at 5:47 pm – S. Nowicki
How to communicate information on water quality and its consequences/meaning to users/consumers in a way that is understandable and useful despite the large uncertainties, expense and politics inherent in water quality testing.