In an interview, Huw Pohlner discussed the critical importance of addressing surface water quality for human and ecosystem health in China and the Asia Pacific — as ambient water quality. This article examines the current state of water quality is throughout the Asia Pacific region and touches on some of the solutions that are being implemented.
Water quality in the Asia Pacific is an important issue for human wellbeing. Surface water — creeks, lakes, and streams — is easily contaminated by domestic and industrial waste, a problem that is rampant in the Asia Pacific, and around the globe. Surface water is commonly what we use for drinking water sources and contamination of these waters can pose major health risks.
According to the Global Water Forum, Asian rivers are very polluted, with many containing up to three times the world average of faecal coliforms, coming primarily from untreated human sewage, and livestock waste. A lack of sanitation infrastructure compounds the problem, as well as increased agricultural production damaging surface water sources at the same time.
A summary of the areas of major concern
The countries of Asia Pacific vary greatly in size, population, and industrialization, and regions within those countries vary as well. There are some areas that seem to pose more problems with surface water quality than others.
- In South Asia, according to a report on water quality by Stephen Luby, Head, Programme on Infectious Diseases and Vaccine Sciences, “the frequency of water contamination with human faeces is so common throughout South Asia that it is accepted as the norm. Those who can afford it buy bottled water (of dubious quality), and the majority are left to drink the available contaminated water. The commonality of this contamination risks preventing us from appreciating the seriousness of the problem.”
Industrial pollutants are also an issue in South Asia as traditional agriculture turns over to industrial production without surveillance measures in place.
- In North Asia, the Asian Development Bank has estimated a decline of potable water by 60 per cent in 50 years owing to population growth and the spread of industrial activity and intensive agriculture. In August 2015, Chen Changzhi, vice chairman of the National People’s Congress (NPC) Standing Committee in China, said 9.2 per cent of 972 national monitoring stations in China showed water quality that is too polluted for any purpose, including irrigation.
- The Pacific Islands face a shortage of safe and adequate drinking water owing to financial, institutional, and structural constraints leaving three million people at risk.
- And, in Southeast Asia, places like Indonesia face highly polluted surface water problems as a result of high waste production.
Addressing surface water quality
Addressing surface water quality challenges will require local, contextually-appropriate approaches driven by strong national and international political will to clean up and improve water quality and ecosystem health.
In the Asia Pacific as well as globally, one of the first steps to addressing polluted water is to understand the levels and sources of pollutants, so that the focus of solutions can first be on heavy polluting industries or practices.
Because much of surface water in the Asia Pacific is highly interconnected across boundaries and borders, a collaborative approach between countries and stakeholders is needed to address problems with surface water quality. For surface water quality to improve, efforts to evaluate water must draw on a wide a range of stakeholders, comparing the perceived cost and benefits of clean water, and make decisions in a manner that is consistent with the shared value proposition that they arrive at. For more on the article on developing a clear value proposition
In places like China, India, Thailand, the Philippines, Bangladesh, and Indonesia, according to the Global Water Forum, some wastewater treatment plants and rehabilitation processes are already in place or being implemented, which is encouraging and provides us with examples to follow, but more will need to be done.