Wicked Problems Of Water Quality Governance

By Prof. James Nickum, Prof. Henning Bjornlund, Raya Stephan 16 July, 2018

Experts explore 8 water quality issues in the next 20 years

Existing governance cannot cope; water can contain any of >70,000 potentially harmful artificial substances
Quality more a threat to security than diminishing supply
Need 'source to sea' holistic treatment, build more trust around treatment & reuse and more longer term planning

Water International Cover
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)

Further Reading

  • Water Wars: What Policymakers Can Do – Water conflicts within countries are increasingly prevalent with industrial and even transboundary implications. What can policymakers do? We sat down with World Bank’s Scott Moore to find out
  • 8 Key Challenges In Rural Water Security – Rural water supply in China is challenging due to size, increasing urbanisation & more. China Water Risk’s Feng Hu shares 8 key challenges & reflections from the China Europe Water Platform workshop
  • The Future Of The Paris Agreement – The Paris Agreement has been in effect for more than a year now. How is the rulebook going? What’s next at COP24? Professor Daniel Bodansky from Arizona States University, a climate change law expert, shares his views
  • How To Solve The Global Water Crisis – Most of the world’s water woes can be solved with enough money and willpower. The real challenges are thus not technical but political and ethical. Check out why World Bank’s Scott Moore thinks so
  • 3 Takeaways From Aquatech China 2018 – 4 years on, China Water Risk is again presenting at the Industrial Water Leaders Forum at Aquatech China. Our Dawn McGregor shares key takeaways from the 2018 events and how they compare to 2014
  • Rising To The Water Challenge – Barclays analyst Zachary Sadow shares key findings from their report with the Columbia Water Center on how US energy companies and public utilities can help alleviate water shortages through new tech and practices
  • Managing China’s Water Stress Drop By Drop – What are the trends in managing China’s water stress? WRI’s Dr Jiao Wang finds that while there is good and bad news, the Three Red Line regulations and local policies seem to have overall positive impacts
  • Water Efficiency Policy: A Technological High-Water Mark? – From biomimicry to data analytics, Singapore is developing new technology to produce clean water without sinking the environment. Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy’s Tommy Kevin Lee and Cecilia Tortajada expand
  • Integrated Wastewater Treatment In PRD – Guangdong needs RMB39.8bn for wastewater treatment in the 13FYP. Hear from CT Environmental Group’s Liang Xiangjing & Zeng Sasha on how a key wastewater plant can help pollution control in the region as well as benefit its various stakeholders
  • Water Ten: Comply Or Else – China’s new Water Ten Plan sets tough action on pollution prevention & control. While this is good for the water sector, less obvious is who or which sectors will be impacted. China Water Risk’s Tan on why China is serious about its fast & furious pollution reforms to propel China to a new norm


Prof. James Nickum
Author: Prof. James Nickum
James E. Nickum, a resident of Japan with a Ph.D. from the University of California (Berkeley), has served on the past four Boards in a number of capacities and as Editor-in-Chief of Water International since 2007. He is also Professional Research Associate at the Centre for Water and Development, School of Oriental and Asian Studies, University of London. He also serves as an advisor on water governance to the University of Hong Kong. He is a widely published institutional economist specialising in various facets of water and environmental governance, especially but not exclusively in China, which he visited for the first time in 1974 on a delegation with Ven Te Chow.
Read more from Prof. James Nickum →
Prof. Henning Bjornlund
Author: Prof. Henning Bjornlund
Henning Bjornlund has been at the University of South Australia for more than 20 years. Since January 2015, he has been a Research Professor of Water Management and Policy. For the last three years he served as a Director of IWRA. In that capacity, he presented a number of papers and served on two steering committees for research projects. He has extensive experience in managing large research projects and published some 175 refereed papers. Prior to joining academia Henning was involved in the management of educational institutions, businesses, tropical farming operations and a development aid organisation. He served in various capacities such as board member, chairman and executive director. Henning offers a unique blend of experiences crossing academia, industry and the NGO sector.
Read more from Prof. Henning Bjornlund →
Raya Stephan
Author: Raya Stephan
Raya Marina Stephan is an expert in water law, and an international consultant in water related projects with international organizations. She has a wide experience in the design and execution of international projects related to legal and institutional aspects of water management, and transboundary waters. She was involved in the experts advisory group of UNESCO’s International Hydrological Program to the Special Rapporteur of the UN International Law Commission for the preparation of the draft articles on the law of transboundary aquifers. She has also advised on the application of international water law for the UN Economic Commission for Europe and the Arab League. She was a member of the Publications Committee of the International Water Resources Association (IWRA) (2010-2012), and she chaired it and served on the Executive Board from 2013-2015. Ms Stephan is the author of numerous publications related to water law and international water law.
Read more from Raya Stephan →