Water Quality in the era of Climate Change

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17 October 2015 | Katharine Cross

 

Climate change and variability directly affect all parts of the water cycle, from snowmelt to the timing of rainy and dry seasons. Water is the medium through which we see how changes in rainfall, temperature and extreme weather conditions can impact our surroundings. Ongoing and expected changes in the water cycle include the availability and distribution of rainfall, snowmelt, river flows and groundwater, and the further deterioration of water quality.

These impacts are already affecting how we manage water quality, public health and ecosystems. 

Many factors influence water quality, including increasing population, greater concentration of people in cities, industrial production, including energy, and how land is used. The impacts of climate change further exacerbate existing water quality problems. The devastating physical impact of floods such as those this year in Southeast Asia, India, Southeast Africa, Chile and most recently France, caused destruction and loss of life.

One immediate concern after any disaster is the impact on water quality, which unless addressed will impact humanitarian and public health responses. For example, flooding leads to contamination of water sources from wastewater and solid waste. On the other hand, droughts have a slower onset but they can also affect water quality, because lower water flows reduce dilution of pollutants and increase contamination of remaining water sources.

Control of water quality requires law, policy, and regulation flexible enough to take into account how climate change can also be a factor in affecting water availability and quality. The recently launched Compendium of Water Quality Regulatory Frameworks: Which Water for Which Use?, explores how legal and regulatory frameworks are responding to water quality challenges. It also looks at these frameworks in the context of a changing climate.

Legal and regulatory texts rarely consider the impacts of climate on water quality directly. Many existing laws, intended to protect health, natural resources and promote conservation, were drafted under significantly different conditions. Current climate challenges can make these less effective.

However, the issue is not so much whether climate change is taken into account, but whether regulators have the vision to adapt the existing regulatory framework to the changing dynamics of water resources due to climate shifts and changing behaviours. For water quality to be maintained and improved, decisive action is required to change regulatory practices in ways that accommodate, offset and mitigate climate change.

Legislation offers limited flexibility to cope with the water quality challenges imposed by climate change; yet there are successful examples that can be explored further in the case studies found in the Compendium.

An example is the Great Lakes Water Quality Protocol of 2012 resulting from The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement between Canada and USA. This regulatory instrument enables the countries to coordinate to identify, quantify, understand and predict the impacts of climate change, and share findings. In addition, coastal communities receive support to understand and mitigate the impacts of climate change on water quality.

Developing the Compendium brought together leading professionals in the field of water quality; providing an opportunity to reflect on what makes good regulation, including the ability to respond to changes in the environment. The following points can help in the development, updating and/or implementation of water quality regulations to address the impacts of climate change:

  • Assessing how water quality is affected by climate change;
  • Analysis of how the water cycle is responding to changing pressures due to climate change and increasing resource demands across sectors;
  • Developing instruments and tools such as the Green Drop Programme in South Africa, which incorporates incentive based regulation for wastewater treatment plant operation, and allows the original water quality goals to be achieved;
  • A clear preventative and flexible management framework. This can evaluate and address changing risks. Approaches such as Water Safety Plans incorporate proactive risk management along the entire supply chain absorbing the acute impacts of hazards due to climate variability and change;
  • Consideration of different water qualities for different uses when regulating water quality is an opportunity to promote more efficient use of water resources;
  • Coherence and coordination enables innovative management approaches that are as important as good standards;
  • Capacity building to have informed regulators and the financial resources for better technologies and infrastructure that guarantee good water quality.

This blog is derived from a journal article for Aqua Procedia:

Cross, K and Latorre, C. 2015. Which water for which use? Exploring water quality instruments in the context of a changing climate. Aquatic Procedia 5, 104-110