Water quality is as important for ecosystems as for people

Anand Chandrasekhar, Geneva, 21 February 2014

Aruwa BendsenAruwa Bendsen is the Programme Officer within the Freshwater Ecosystems Unit of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). She spoke with Anand Chandrasekhar and shared her views on the effect of deteriorating water quality on ecosystems and why it is important to establish an international water quality standard for ecosystems.

Anand Chandrasekhar: Over the past few decades, the water quality of surface and ground water has improved and this is one of the rare successes in the environment management sector. Why should we be concerned about water quality when we seem to have it under control?

Aruwa Bendsen: The quality of water determines the level of both the health of human beings and that of ecosystems. Roughly a billion people do not have a reliable constant supply of safe water. More than 2.5 billion people around the world – one third of the global population – do not have adequate sanitation. Two to four million deaths a year are attributed to unsafe water.

Around 90% of waste water produced globally remains untreated and is directly discharged in the environment, causing widespread water pollution, especially in low-income countries. Around 60% of ecosystem services studied are degraded with the services from aquatic ecosystems being mostly affected as highlighted in the Millenium Assessment Report (2005).

Anand Chandrasekhar: The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment of 2005 revealed that degradation and loss of wetlands is continuing more rapidly than other ecosystems. How does deterioration of water quality undermine the ecosystem service provided by wetlands?

Aruwa Bendsen: Freshwater ecosystems are among the most degraded by worsening water quality and quantity. Wetlands provide several critical ecosystem services, all negatively affected by the deterioration of water quality. Indeed, wetlands filter and improve water quality; attenuate and moderate water flows ensuring flood control; provide a natural replenishment function for groundwater, recharging underlying aquifers; and support extensive biodiversity. Wetlands have been degraded by excessive volumes of contaminants, diminishing their capacity to improve water quality and other services.

Anand Chandrasekhar: Have existing water quality regulations and monitoring programs failed wetlands?

Aruwa Bendsen: Wetland specific regulations and monitoring programs have been underutilized. A suite of measurements of wetland function and condition are required to protect the full range of wetland functions and ecological conditions. Developing secure water quality standards for wetlands is a data intensive effort and is dependent on a successful wetland monitoring and assessment program. Moreover, water quality regulations should take into account catchment-specific hydrogeological parameters, which make water quality programs more challenging to implement across different geographic settings.

Anand Chandrasekhar: The UNEP recently launched the International Water Quality Guidelines for Ecosystems (IWQGES) project at the Budapest Water Summit. Why do we need an international water quality standard for ecosystems?

Aruwa Bendsen: Declining water quality has become a major issue of concern that threatens to cause major alterations in water use, ecosystem health and functioning and the biodiversity it underpins. The Millennium Ecosystem Report notes that aquatic ecosystem services are degraded by 60 %. The aim of the IWQGES is to develop a set of scientifically-based policy and technical guidelines, enabling national, regional and local authorities to improve their regulatory frameworks and to enhance the management of their water resources and aquatic ecosystems. The guidelines will be used as a reference document that will cover different hydrogeological settings.

Anand Chandrasekhar: Water quality has been transformed from a local issue to a global issue as a result of linkages with climate change, global nutrient cycling, governance and development. Has this transformation had an impact on the way we approach water quality legislation and policy?

Aruwa Bendsen: Water is at the core of sustainable development and is critical for socio-economic development, healthy ecosystems and human survival. It is increasingly obvious that the development, current use and management of the resource is unsustainable. This has led to a change in the on-going discussions regarding the post-2015 agenda and the recognition of the importance of the inter-related water issues and thus the way water quality legislation and policy is being approached.

Anand Chandrasekhar: It is estimated that by 2025, 1.8 billion people will be living in regions with absolute water scarcity and two-thirds of the world’s population could experience water-stress conditions. Is there not a risk that water for ecosystems will be relegated to the bottom of the list by decision-makers?

Aruwa Bendsen: Given the centrality of water for ecosystems, human and economic development, water is a powerful tool for cooperation across sectors and borders. Water stress causes deterioration of fresh water resources in terms of both quantity and quality.

The wise use of water is imperative for sustainable development and decision-makers must be informed in order to prioritize and work towards a sustainable water, food and energy secure globe.

One of the main outcomes of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) was the agreement by Member States to develop a set of Sustainable Development Goals that would address in a balanced way all three dimensions of sustainable development – economic, social and environment. The Post 2015 Development progress and the emphasis on water as the core as well as a cross-cutting resource is significant.

Anand Chandrasekhar: The IWQGES guidelines will have a strong focus on assisting developing countries to improve the protection of their aquatic resource base. However, many governments in these countries regard the erosion of natural capital for the sake of economic growth as an acceptable strategy. How do we make a dent in this “development at any cost” attitude?

Aruwa Bendsen: The current debate concerning development versus environment is premised on the fatal assumption that the two are in contradiction with each other. The industrialized world’s emphasis on green issues holds back developing countries as this is seen as interference in their affairs. It also contributes to a greater divide between the First and Third worlds.

One reason why this development-at-any-cost attitude is anathema to sustainability is because it leads to the poor use of resources. There is a misperception that developing countries need not think about sustainability and environmental responsibility. The argument goes that wealthy countries charged ahead without considering the environmental implications of growth, and that to compete, developing countries need to be equally reckless. But this logic is flawed, not least because poorer countries are likely to suffer the worst consequences of environmental damage going forward. Training and capacity building is key in changing the outlook and perception and in promoting green economies.

Anand Chandrasekhar: The immediacy of urgent short-term demands on water still override the long-term strategies and actions to maintain the natural systems. How important are initiatives like TEEB for Water and Wetlands that help highlight the true cost of neglecting the role of ecosystems in delivering our water needs?

Aruwa Bendsen: Sustainable development is about economic growth that takes proper account of environmental effects and that is socially responsible. The long term sustainability of economic growth itself depends on maintaining basic ecosystem services, a healthy environment and cohesive societies. Stronger cooperation is required to balance these elements.

Properly implemented economic incentives achieve environmental objectives effectively and initiatives like TEEB for Water and Wetlands surely helps highlight the true cost of neglecting the role of ecosystems in delivering our water needs.

Anand Chandrasekhar: ‘Water and Biodiversity’ was the theme for this years’ International Day for Biological Diversity in recognition of the United Nations designation of 2013 as the International Year of Water Cooperation. In addition, the period 2005-2015 is the International Decade for Action ‘Water for Life’. Can this focus on water bring the importance of ecosystems-water linkages to the forefront of water discussions and policies?

Aruwa Bendsen: Exposure and outreach, especially with the focus of water for the 2013 International days assists in pushing the agenda and bringing out the importance of ecosystem health and the linkages with sustainability. The inclusion of water issues for the post-2015 development agenda will ensure continuous effort and more coordinated action.

Anand Chandrasekhar: At the recently concluded World Water Week in Stockholm there was a call for a “Sustainable Development Goal on Water” for 2030 that includes sustaining healthy ecosystems and improving water quality as a resilience strategy. Does water have the potential to serve as the cross-cutting issue that can unite different sectors like energy, agriculture, health?

Aruwa Bendsen: Water is a key determinant in all aspects of social, economic and environmental development. In order to prevent crises in the water as well as the water dependent sectors, Water needs to be addressed adequately in the Post-2015 Development Agenda. The Water-Energy-Food Nexus dialogues are being given more exposure. A clear path that is measurable, pragmatic and rests on the wise use of water is essential. Water does have the potential to be twofold and serve as both the cross-cutting issue but also a goal within itself.

About the author

anandAnand Chandrasekhar, is based in Switzerland and has a Masters in Conservation Biology from the University of Kent, UK and a Bachelors in Forestry from the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University, India. His experience extends to a wide range of environment issues including species conservation, environmental law and policy, natural resources governance, climate change and carbon markets. He now specializes in science and environment communications and enjoys developing thought-provoking content and challenging conventional thinking.


The views expressed in this blog are purely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of TEEB and should not in any circumstances be regarded as stating an official position of TEEB.

Photo credits: Lawrence Hislop

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