GWSP Archive: IWQGES Objectives, Purpose and Scope of the Guidelines

International Water Quality Guidelines for Ecosystems

ecosystemObjectives, Purpose and Scope of the Guidelines

The aim of this initiative is to develop a set of scientifically-sound policy and regulatory guidelines, enabling transnational, national, regional and local authorities to improve the sustainable management of their water resources and aquatic ecosystems. These guidelines are intended to be global in scope and relevance, although a strong focus will be in assisting developing countries in their efforts toward improved protection of their aquatic resource base. Therefore primary emphasis will be given to the environmental, hydrological and climatic factors, as well as to the potential water uses, prevalent in these countries.

The Guidelines should make explicit use of available reference documents (like the EU Water Framework Directive, the Ramsar Convention, and any existing national standards and regulatory frameworks) and data, building upon the scoping study supporting this initiative. However the simple transfer of these results and recommendations into unchartered geographical locations is not envisioned. Rather, the objective would be to define regionally-relevant conditions that will support the formation of locally-relevant laws and regulations.

While water quality related problems threaten the health and functionality of aquatic ecosystems, these guidelines are not restricted to chemical, biological and biodiversity related aspects. Water quantity, its adequate spatial availability and especially its temporal distribution, and maintenance of minimum environmental flows, are critical factors co-determining the health of aquatic ecosystems and their potential to provide and support essential ecosystem processes and services.

These Guidelines are aimed to be based on sound scientific evidence and to have global scope. While both attributes are essential, they also imply certain limitations. Guidelines for standard setting can be considered as well founded scientific advice. As such they are not a substitute for proper standards to be established and enforced by sovereign state authorities or by intergovernmental bodies (like EU) or through international conventions to be observed within their respective jurisdictions, according to implementation time schedules formulated by the same authorities and/or their political organs.

Standard setting includes value judgments and assignment of certain functions (utilitarian or/and natural ones) to specific water bodies and water courses. We may speak about a “vision” to be achieved. These ”visions” translate into water quality and quantity attributes for respective set of streams, lakes and/or wetlands, or even artificial water bodies (impoundments). This standard setting is a multi-stakeholder decision making process within a given socioeconomic and political context.

Neither the scientific community nor the intergovernmental (UN) agencies are mandated to develop this ”vision”.  Instead, governments (at all scales) and other stakeholders who are legitimate custodians and users of aquatic resources within their respective jurisdictions must agree on a set of standards and objectives for these waters at the national level. Nevertheless, the scientific community and the intergovernmental agencies can provide information and guidance to this process to ensure the promulgation of scientifically-sound and regionally relevant laws and regulations.

While developing the guidelines, these “stakeholder visions” will not universally be known. Therefore they will be substituted by alternative “model visions” assuming certain water uses or ecosystem categories. These “model visions” will be based upon documented conditions, scientific reports, and local knowledge.

Identification of both the “stakeholder visions” and ”model visions” involve determining which sustainable uses are expected to be secured. Thus, these visions implicitly reflect the choice of water quality and quantity indicators and their suggested respective threshold values.

The Guidelines will recommend both associated indicators and corresponding threshold values thereof.  Threshold setting is acknowledged as a potentially controversial exercise. Thresholds, their definitions and numerical values are frequently the subject of scientific debate. Due to their implications for economic activities and consequences for potential remedial actions they also may be part of a broader societal debate.  Hence, the Guidelines are intended to serve as the basis for setting national standards, but will be non-binding in nature. Their application, integration and enforcement will be subject to the authorities of existing national legislations and regulations.

Although the guidelines are global in scope, different spatial scales and ecosystem levels may need to be utilized to define regionally-relevant thresholds. However, due to limited baseline data about the health and functioning of ecosystems, and due to the lack of, or sparse, monitoring networks in some remote areas in some regions, it is expected that some recommendations may have to be based on scientific estimates, rather than on observational data. In this context, it is also expected that the Guidelines will identify the need for more comprehensive monitoring programmes and further research.

Background and Rationale

Human population growth, accelerating economic activities, land use alterations, and climate change increase pressures on the quality and quantity of global water resources, and threaten freshwaters as well as ecosystems. Declining water quality has become a global issue of concern threatening to cause major alterations to the hydrological cycle. The discharge of waste water, for instance, has increased dramatically with many developing countries discharging it untreated into largely pristine ecosystems. Nutrient enrichment from agriculture (animal waste and excessive use of fertilizers) is on the rise. Hormones, pharmaceutical residues and other new chemicals are emerging water quality challenges. Water quality issues are complex and diverse, and therefore urgently require global attention and action. (UN-Water Policy Brief: Water Quality)

Deteriorating water quality is one of the leading causes of degradation of aquatic ecosystems and their related services threatening livelihoods and development. The Millennium Ecosystem Report (2005) notes that aquatic ecosystems are deteriorating faster than many other natural systems. Biodiversity loss, for example, is highest amongst aquatic species.

While international guidelines already exist for drinking water, irrigation, livestock, and water reuse, among others, comparable international water quality guidelines for ecosystems are still missing. As illustrated in Annex 1, such guidelines would provide a sound foundation for all other user-related water quality guidelines. In addition, these guidelines would facilitate the integration of the ecosystem approach in water quality regulations worldwide.

In recognition of the increasing challenges caused by deteriorating water quality, UN-Water established the Thematic Priority Area (TPA) on Water Quality in 2010 and entrusted UNEP to coordinate it. The UN-Water TPA on Water Quality recognized:

  1. the importance of establishing a framework for water quality guidelines incorporating existing, new and envisaged guidelines, and
  2. the need to develop water quality guidelines for the protection and rehabilitation of aquatic ecosystems.

Developing International Water Quality Guidelines for Aquatic Ecosystems will enhance the capacity of transnational, national, regional and local authorities to sustainably manage their water resources and aquatic ecosystems, by providing a set of non-prescriptive, scientifically sound guidelines. By adopting these international guidelines, countries may save individual efforts and costs, which would normally be needed prior to establishing binding standards and water use regulations.

By adopting these guidelines, countries also reduce the amount of complex background research and cost benefit analysis that may be required when establishing their water quality regulations, as the international guidelines are likely to contain much of the relevant information required. Further, countries benefit from the global wisdom relating to water quality and aquatic ecosystems.

UN-Water initiated a process for developing the proposed framework and guidelines in collaboration with partner organizations, including universities and research institutions, and governmental bodies. UNEP, on behalf of the UN-Water Thematic Priority Area (TPA) on Water Quality, and in cooperation with UNESCO, commissioned the Institute for Water Quality, Resources and Waste Management (IWAG-TU) at the Vienna University of Technology in Austria to undertake a scoping study for developing water quality guidelines for aquatic ecosystems. The study proposed a water quality framework, provided an overview of the existing water quality guidelines for aquatic ecosystems, reviewed processes that might be followed to develop other water quality guidelines and defined the scope and process for developing such guidelines. The scoping study recommended an international consultative, scientific process to develop the guidelines. These recommendations were presented and discussed extensively at the 6th World Water Forum in Marseille in March 2012.

Following these deliberations, given the wide scope of the subject and complex consultations required, a phased process for developing the guidelines was recommended:

Phase 1: Development of Draft International Guidelines (by the end of 2014)

Phase 2: International and Regional consultations on the draft International Guidelines (2015)

Phase 3: Endorsement of the International Guidelines by the UNEP Governing Council (2016)

Phase 4: Dissemination, implementation and regular updates of the International Guidelines (post 2016)

At its 17th Senior Programmes Managers’ (SPM) meeting, UN Water requested UNEP to continue providing leadership in the development of these guidelines as this action falls within its mandate. Developing water quality guidelines could be pursued within the context of implementing UNEP’s Program of Work pursuant to the Ecosystem Management sub-programme Output 3.1.1:  Developing ecosystem management tools. To this end, UNEP has developed a sound scientific base to support the development of such guidelines. UNEP can also draw on the collective wisdom of the Ministries of Environment that, in many countries, have the mandate to monitor water quality and protect ecosystems.

Key Aspects and Parameters for Developing International Water Quality Guidelines

Scientifically-based guidelines to establish new, or to adapt existing, water quality and quantity standards for sustaining aquatic ecosystems need to be developed within the broad context of climatic, geographic, geomorphologic, hydrographic and hydrological conditions within which aquatic ecosystems exist, though their forms, composition, functions and services may vary. These combinations should be all encompassing, yet not overly complex or unnecessarily detailed. It should be kept in mind that every standard, parameter and monitoring requirement will have serious and long lasting cost and capacity implications. These burdens cannot be shouldered by countries that cannot afford it.

The Guidelines face the dilemma of developing either a utilitarian classification concentrating on human requirements and uses, or an ecocentric approach, attempting to characterize aquatic ecosystems without explicit consideration of the potential uses (services) that the particular ecosystem is supposed to deliver. A key aspect that needs to be considered from the beginning is that aquatic ecosystems are living entities with their specific water demands both in quality and quantity. Only after having satisfied these ecosystem water requirements can we expect the aquatic ecosystems to function and provide services to other systems sustainably. This implies that the human needs aspect will also have to be considered. However, there is a need to take a step beyond the prevailing water quality classifications (and standards) which are defined almost exclusively as function of human needs. For example, the water quality standards of the European Union classify natural water bodies in terms of their suitability for use as sources for drinking water, bathing, or fishing. For this reason, among other approaches, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment framework of considering the resource provisioning services, regulating services, cultural services, and sustaining services will be explored as basis for assessing natural waters. Furthermore, during the course of early deliberations, the merits and disadvantages of a threshold based approach and a reference value based approach should be carefully compared.

The historical development of classification systems applicable to natural water bodies has followed the utilitarian approach. Numerous sets of parameters and threshold values have been developed and agreed upon to classify streams and lakes as potential sources of drinking water or as resources for various other uses. Recent decades have witnessed the emergence of the ecocentric approach. There is much less “consolidation” in this approach than in the “utilitarian” approach. These Guidelines will merge the two approaches and investigate how far the known and tested threshold values of the utilitarian approach correlate with distinct ecosystem classes. Thus a starting point could be the use-based classifications, but aimed at extending this approach to characterize the ecosystem features and potential services provided by natural, as well as (eventually) strongly modified (artificial), water bodies. Thus the approach remains clearly anthropocentric, although defining healthy ecosystems as an implicit human (societal) need as much as a natural one. With this intended “third road” approach, the development of the Guidelines is intending to be a scientifically-based and -sound effort.

In the following section, a preliminary classification scheme is described. At this stage it is clearly stated that this scheme is a starting point to stimulate further deliberation and refinement.

The starting point for deliberations

This preliminary classification may consider four categories of freshwater bodies (ecosystems):

  • Running waters (ephemeral (intermittent) and perennial (permanent) streams and rivers)
  • Standing water bodies (lakes, ponds, artificial waters/impoundments)
  • Wetlands (according to the Ramsar classification)
  • Groundwater

Of these, it is suggested that groundwater bodies not be explicitly considered in this classification, but, as aquifers interact with surface waters (for example in term of regulating low flows), they would be dealt with implicitly. For example, from the perspective of ambient water quality, water quality in groundwater is manifested either in term of outflows into surface water systems or in terms of drinking water and water use quality, whereby groundwater is abstracted and discharged into surface waters after use. Consequently, groundwater would be evaluated within the context of the three categories of surface waters noted above; namely, flowing waters within water courses, standing water in lakes and reservoirs, and waters within wetlands and floodlands.

There is a need to make the distinction between ephemeral and perennial water bodies in different climatic zones, where the phenomenon of drying could occur naturally and healthy ecosystems are able to cope with this intermittency. Similarly, in cold zones, the liquid/frozen states could potentially add complexity to the process.

Notwithstanding, the three categories of freshwater bodies could all be considered under different climatic conditions:

  • Cold
  • Temperate (Moderate)
  • Sub-tropical, and
  • Tropical

The above climatic (mainly temperature based) conditions can be combined with different precipitation regimes as a further important determinant of the prevailing hydrological conditions. Typically, at least four climatic regimes will need to be considered:

  • Dry (Arid)
  • Semi-Arid
  • Sub-Humid, and
  • Wet (Humid)

Finally, and especially for streams due to their profound morphological changes, but also for lakes due to their different stratification patterns, the following three zones could be considered:

  • Upland/Mountain
  • Mid-reach/Mid-level (piedmont or plain), and
  • Low land (delta, estuary)

While these categories are both preliminary and fairly general ones, they would yield, without considering the ephemeral/perennial and water/ice dilemmas noted above, 3 water body types, 3 different elevation/reach categories, 4 temperature regimes, and 4 rainfall regimes) A further increase in this dimensionality would be the consideration of 4 categories of potential ecosystem functions (or “model visions”) which could be established with corresponding thresholds, characterizing:

  • Quasi-pristine state (close to undisturbed natural conditions, ideal for ecosystems for their own sake). This state corresponds with the so called “reference state” as defined by the European Water Framework Directive
  • Good quality state of ecosystems(potentially allowing direct human contact type uses (swimming, recreation, water withdrawal for drinking purposes with minimal treatment needs)
  • Intermediate state of ecosystems (where indirect human water uses, like irrigation withdrawal, artificial recharge, absorbing treated sewage, water transportation, hydropower can be accepted).
  • Inacceptable state of ecosystems, characterized by threshold values indicating the urgent need of remedial action to restore the ecological function of the respective water body.

These four categories (with three “targetable” quality classes) can be interpreted as key levels within potential ‘model visions’.

Given that wetlands may not be considered for their potential as bathing waters, the potentially distinct types of ecosystems may not all need to be multiplied by the 4 target “vision” classes, as some unfeasible combinations can be identified in advance. Further, deliberations during the inception phase could potentially eliminate other combinations, which would describe aquatic ecosystems that are neither realistic, nor widespread under commonly occurring geographic or climatic conditions. Beyond this potential truncation, the guidelines will attempt to recommend indicators (indices) and their respective numerical values for various aquatic ecosystem type/water use objective combinations.  The fact that after 10 years of concerted efforts this is still quite uncertain for many biotic groups in EU waters indicates the scope and magnitude of the challenge faced by this initiative. Yet, learning from this experience and involving several scientific networks and, regional/country representatives could benefit the formulation of regionally relevant Guidelines that could serve as a foundation for more detailed development within specific countries or groups of countries.

For this reason, the objective of this project is to develop simple guidelines that are science based but easily understood and applicable, that can be improved over time.

Organization for Developing International Water Quality Guidelines for Aquatic Ecosystems

The development of the international guidelines for aquatic ecosystems, up to approval process, is expected to take 36 months: 21 months for developing the draft guidelines and 15 months for consultations on the draft guidelines.

In the first phase of developing the draft guidelines, UNEP will work in close collaboration with UNESCO and UNU within the framework of the UN-Water Thematic Priority Area on “Water Quality”. The draft guidelines will initially be developed by two interacting committees. UNEP will be assisted in mobilizing scientific input and coordinating the committees. the committees are anticipated to be: an International Drafting Committee and an International Review Committee. These committees will fall under the auspices of the Global Water System Project (GWSP), a joint project of the four Global Environmental Change (GEC) programmes (DIVERSITAS, IGBP, WCRP and IHDP). The close cooperation of the scientific community with the UN System would be facilitated by UNU-EHS, which will also bring its scientific contribution to the process, while UNESCO will mobilize its scientific centers to contribute to the process.

The above-mentioned scientific committees would  have different roles. The International Drafting Committee (IDC) is envisaged as being composed of 8 internationally recognized scientists. The IDC will be entrusted with the development of the concept, data collection and drafting of the Preliminary Guidelines. Further, after incorporating the comments, addenda, and responses to  comments from the International Review Committee, the IDC will produce the “Draft Guidelines” which will then serve as the basis for further broad consultations involving member states, international organizations, international NGOs, and other stakeholders.

The International Review Committee (IRC) (with up to 16 members) will support the work of the IDC through several formal (regular) reviews and additional informal interactions. This body will involve experts representing different geographical regions.  It is anticipated that the experts will be regionally balanced and have diverse experiences related to water quality including monitoring/observation, research, planning, and administration/maintenance. Consideration will also be given to inclusion of experienced professionals from a number of relevant disciplines. The IRC will comment on the concept and will provide additional information sources, regional and gender perspectives and recommendations. IRC members will provide written comments on the Preliminary Guidelines and will also review the Draft Guidelines prior to their broad dissemination. Both IDC and IRC members will be involved in the promotion of the Draft Guidelines and their dissemination for consultation.

The IDC and IRC members also will be tasked with ensuring that the draft guidelines will be of the highest scientific quality and responsive to regional and country needs. The IRC will support the regional consultations envisaged as part of the review process.

The GWSP will serve as the “analytical partner” to UNEP for this assignment. The GWSP International Project Office (IPO) will support UNEP in coordinating the work of the two committees and mobilize the overall input of the GWSP members. It will assist UNEP in drafting the consolidated guidelines.

UN system wide input to the development of the guidelines will be obtained through the UN Water TPA on Water Quality which will be involved right from the beginning. This forum will also serve the purpose of linking this activity to other UN Water activities.

Following its decision to develop the water quality guidelines for ecosystems, the UNEP Governing Council will:

  • Review regular progress reports from UNEP on developing the guidelines and provide follow up directions
  • Facilitate and support global and regional consultations on the draft guidelines
  • Approve the draft guidelines
  • Promote their application following their approval.

Deliverables and their schedule

Deliverable 1: Inception Report

The first deliverable (Deliverable 1) is the review of this concept note and the definition of the set of environmental combinations to be addressed during the follow up work packages. This revision is expected to start once the proposed decision to develop the guidelines has been approved by the Governing Council. The IDC members invited to participate in scrutinizing this proposal are expected to suggest modifications, simplifications and/or refinements as the first step in implementing the Work Plan. The results of these deliberations (to be implemented via telecommunications, circulating drafts, correspondence and emails, preferably between March-June 2013) will be a revised classification scheme. This proposal forms the basis of the Inception Report, of which the draft will be available before the envisaged Joint Workshop of the IDC, IRC and the UN Water TPA on Water Quality scheduled to be held in early September 2013, in the presence of UN-Water representatives. The inception meeting will serve as a forum for discussion of this proposal and will refine the work plan and outline the scope for this product.

At the inception meeting, the details, further trajectory and schedule of the work plan will be agreed between and amongst UNEP, UNU, UNESCO and all other stakeholders of the initiative. Following the inception meeting, the IDC will meet separately for its first formal working session. The product of this session will be Deliverable 1 (Inception Report) which will include the definitive Work Plan and finalized Project Description.

Deliverable 2: Set of Parameters/Indicators

The second major task will be to define the set of parameters to be considered in the Guidelines. These parameters should include biological, chemical and physical indicators, as far as water quality, quantity and biotope integrity (inclusive of biodiversity) are concerned.  The IDC will recommend a robust set of indicators to be considered and monitored as the potential basis for sustainable standards. This may yield different sets of parameters to be considered for the different types of aquatic ecosystems. Potentially both an ideal list and a consensus based compromise list will emerge to enhance the practical applicability of the Guidelines. The differences between these lists are likely to arise as a result of variables such as data availability, capacity constraints, and similar practical considerations.

The second major deliverable (Deliverable 2) is the set of parameters (indicators) proposed for the different aquatic ecosystems (which will have been defined by Deliverable 1). This product will be finalized after the inception meeting and should be available and agreed upon by the IDC till the end of the first quarter of 2014.

Deliverable 3: Preliminary/Draft Guidelines

The third major deliverable will be the assignment of threshold values to the selected parameters (Deliverable 2) associated with the different classes of waters. The respective values will be developed and proposed based on literature values/existing data, already recommended thresholds and standards, and expert judgments and consensus proposals. In case of uncertainty, the need for additional measurement and monitoring programmes will be identified.  The Draft Guidelines could reenforce the value of global monitoring networks, building on already existing international networks including long-term monitoring sites. This network would also contribute to the assessment of the effects of a changing climate. It is expected that, at this stage, a potential “feedback” revision of the recommended parameters could be developed and/or research needs would be identified (Deliverables 1 & 2 revisited, including proposed modifications if warranted). Thus the proposed threshold values may be given with additional confidence (certainty), including, but not limited to:

  • Already proposed (and tested) threshold values
  • Scientific consensus recommendations;
  • Indicative values, to be observed and potentially revised;
  • Missing values: for which further research recommended.

This product will be elaborated while the IDC members interact electronically with one another and with UNEP. Potential face-to-face meetings of the drafting committee (or parts thereof) would be encouraged. The main editorial meeting of the IDC would take place in May 2014. The third deliverable (Deliverable 3) is envisaged to be ready at that time, together with explanatory notes and descriptions of the approach. This product (Deliverable 3) constitutes the so-called Preliminary Guidelines. The draft products (Deliverables 1, 2 and 3) will be distributed among the members of the IRC. This latter committee will provide written feedback to the IDC and to UNEP within a two-month period. It is expected that feedback from the IRC will be available by the third quarter of 2014.

Deliverable 4: Revised Draft Guidelines

The revised draft Guidelines (Deliverable 4) then would be prepared based on the Preliminary Guidelines and the comments received from the IRC.  and the revised draft Guidelines would be distributed among the IDC, IRC and UN-Water TPA “Water Quality” representatives, prior to a potential second review/editorial workshop scheduled for September 2014  At this workshop, the revised draft would be discussed by the IDC, UNEP and UNESCO, and potentially UN-Water TPA representatives.

The remaining part of 2014 will then be used to prepare the “Draft Guidelines” for wider review by member states, professional organizations, and other stakeholders.

Deliverable 5: Final Draft International Water Quality Guidelines for Aquatic Ecosystems

The “Draft Guidelines” will serve as the basis for broad deliberation within the UN member states, at regional levels, within the UN system (through UN Water), in the scientific community and at the global level. It is anticipated that these deliberations will be conducted from 2015 onwards. They would include multiple stakeholder meetings and discussions. The Final Draft of the International Water Quality Guidelines for Aquatic Ecosystems (Deliverable 5) would become due in December 2015. It is expected that, in addition to its role as the basis for the above-described future deliberations, the Final Draft Guidelines will also have explicit scientific value, as they will identify areas where urgent research will be needed.

Deliverable 6: International Water Quality Guidelines for Aquatic Ecosystems

The final Draft of the International Guidelines for Aquatic Ecosystems, incorporating input from various stakeholders from the regions and at the global level, will be submitted to the Governing Council of 2016 for approval. Once approved, they will become the International Guidelines for Aquatic Ecosystems (Deliverable 6).

Deliverable 7: Feedback and update of the Guidelines

Once approved, UNEP and other UN agencies will disseminate the guidelines and support their implementation. UNEP will provide regular reports on the implementation of the Guidelines and their respective impacts on ecosystems. Based on the feedback arising from the use of the guidelines, subsequent versions of the Guidelines may be developed for the consideration of the Governing Council.