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Freshwater i s a scarce but essential resource, and its quality is of utmost importance as increasing numbers of people and living organisms depend on it for survival. While water scarcity from lack of quantity often receives more attention, water quality becomes more critical than quantity when available water is degraded or polluted. Water quality is important in the ways that it affects human health, livelihoods, agriculture, industry, recreation, and ecosystem services.
Lack of water quality can thus jeopardize socioeconomic development and environmental sustainability, and the availability of clean and good quality water is increasingly recognized as a key factor for sustainable development. Water quality issues are a serious problem in much of the developing world, where lack of access to clean and safe water leads to high rates of morbidity and mortality (e.g., two million children die each year due to inadequate sanitation and clean water). Globally, 1.1 billion people do not have access to safe drinking water, making water quality a serious global concern.
Water can be polluted from a variety of sources, both human-made and natural. Important sources of water pollution can be microbial (viruses, bacteria), chemical (metals, salts, pesticides/herbicides, solid waste), and radiological. Water quality can be measured using a number of parameters: pH, salinity, oxygen content, turbidity, color, odor/taste, dissolved chemicals, total suspended solids, biochemical oxygen demand, and dissolved oxygen. Common water quality treatments include aeration, chemical treatment, filtration, and ultraviolet light treatment. Water quality can be degraded via point source pollution (e.g., oil spills) or diffuse pollution (e.g., agricultural wastewater seepage).
Due to the connectivity of groundwater and surface water sources, the pollution of one may threaten the water quality of another connected source. As such, water pollution containment and monitoring is challenged by the flow and connective nature of water, as well as by increasing numbers of sources and types of pollution. How water quality is managed thus reflects society’s priorities in water use and management, and the value placed on water quality. Water that is safe for organisms (plants and animals) to survive in, as well as for human use, is at the center of much of the environment-development debates; poor quality water affects different groups of organisms and human society differently across temporal and spatial scales. Given the dialectical nature of human-environment relationships, poor water quality that affects ecosystems also affects society, and vice-versa.
What is deemed to be acceptable levels of pollution of a water source depends on its use, linkages to other water sources, and costs of alternative water usage as well as cleanup or reduction of polluting sources. For instance, agricultural wastewater and industrial effluents can pollute a variety of water sources, making them unsuitable for domestic water purposes as well as aquatic species survival. Pathogens and microbial quality issues are important to humans in drinking water and the spread of waterborne diseases that can affect human society; similarly, overloading of organic matter and chemicals can reduce the ability for aquatic species to survive (e.g., by increasing the biochemical oxygen demand [BOD] to break down pollution). Water quality is generally monitored and regulated through systems of permits and fines that can act as deterrents to pollution or degradation of water sources. Water quality issues become a problem when different uses of a water source are directly threatened. Drinking water quality usually receives the most attention in water quality discussions. When a water source that provides drinking water is contaminated or polluted, it generally becomes important to address that more quickly than nonconsumptive water.
Irrigation water’s quality, however, also needs to be monitored and ensured to prevent crop and soil damage and contamination. Dependency of livelihoods directly on water quality is also an important factor in how people value and organize around water quality issues. For instance, farmers who need good quality water for agricultural production are more likely to be concerned than those whose livelihoods are not directly dependent on irrigation water quality. Similarly, recreationalists may place greater importance on clearer water in lakes or rivers, while governments may deem that it is economically not viable to maintain such quality levels.
Societal power relations are reflected in the ways water quality is assessed, monitored, and judged. Different societies will place different priorities and valuations on the water quality desired, and thus in the different levels of allowable quantities of pollutants in the water. As such, there aren’t universal water quality indicators that are enforced, but there are international guidelines on safe levels and degradation indicators. These guidelines generally are followed by national governments and water authorities in areas of drinking water, wastewater treatment, recreational water facilities, and agricultural production. For instance, the World Health Organization (WHO) provides details of safe and allowable limits of the many pollutants (biotic and abiotic) for drinking water quality in order to maintain human health.
There can be different interpretation of the same data and quality issues, however, depending on the position of the viewer as well as broader societal understandings of what is deemed safe or unsafe. Notions of acceptable risk come to the fore, as different societies and people will perceive risk or threat from water quality differently. As such, different countries may follow slightly different sets of guidelines in monitoring and evaluating water quality for the different uses. In the United States, the Environment Protection Agency (EPA) is largely responsible for monitoring and evaluating water quality and setting guidelines. The Clean Water Act of 1977 is an example of one of the important regulatory mechanisms by which the EPA monitors and control wastewater pollution from industrial sources.
Conflicts over water uses can stem from the different valuations of water. For instance, the same water source may provide drinking water supplies as well as receive industrial and agricultural wastewater, thus necessitating management of the water source so that its quality is maintained for multiple uses. Economics, as well as value systems, also influence water quality issues due to the costs involved in maintaining or returning to a certain level of quality. Similarly, the attention to scale is important, as the scale of a water quality problem will influence the scale of treatment or management needed, and the number of actors involves as well as ecosystems influenced. As such, water quality management necessitates sufficient flexibility and responsiveness in surveillance, quality control, and management mechanisms in order to address different societal and environmental needs.
Given the growing scarcity of good quality water, increasing focus is being given to reusing water and increasing productivity from limited quantities of water. While such technological solutions provide important ways to use scarce water more efficiently and productively, questions remain about social access to safe water and the role of water quality in the broader political economy of development. As such, water quality is as much an environmental and technological question as a political and developmental one.
- Bartram and R. Balance, eds., Water Quality Monitoring-A Practical Guide to the Design and Implementation of Freshwater Quality Studies and Monitoring Programmes, www.who.int;
- International Water Management Institute, www.iwmi.cgiar.org;
- W. Kijne, R. Barker, and D. Molden, eds., Water Productivity in Agriculture: Limits and Opportunities for Improvement, CAB International, https://cgspace.cgiar.org/handle/10568/36479;
- Perry and E. Vanderklein, Water Quality: Management of a Natural Resource (Blackwell Publishers, 1996);
- Trottier and P. Slack, eds., Managing Water Resources: Past and Present (Oxford University Press, 2004);
- United States Environmental Protection Agency/United States Agency for International Development (USAID), Guideline for Water Reuse (USAID, 2004);
- World Health Organization, Water, Sanitation, and Health, www.who.int.