A new portal aims to improve water quality through better data

Access to clean water is one of the greatest challenges the world faces, with a quarter of the world’s population using unsafe drinking water and half of humanity – 3.6 billion people – living without safely managed sanitation. And one key – and often overlooked – element in the battle to address this challenge is data. As the recent United Nations Water Conference and the launch of the Water Action Agenda highlighted, without more comprehensive, better quality data, policymakers cannot accurately measure progress on the state of our world’s water and water bodies or prioritize interventions.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) is the custodian for three Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6 indicators that help understand and prioritize the state of water bodies, including 6.3.2 (“Proportion of bodies of water with good ambient water quality”).

To measure this, a new SDG Water Quality Hub was launched at the end of April to facilitate the UN’s broader 2023 Data Drive. The hub allows countries to view and compare the latest water quality data regionally and globally in order to prioritize action.

We asked Stuart Warner, a UNEP expert on country-based information for such data, to tell us more about the hub.

UNEP: What is the rationale for the data hub? Are you gathering information other than strictly indicator-related data?

Stuart Warner (SW):  

We know we have serious gaps in our data on water, and that water pollution is a particular concern because of the way in which it can degrade ecosystems and affect people’s health. The hub aims to maximize the value of the SDG water quality indicator, and make reporting on it as straightforward as possible. This is an ongoing process and functionality will evolve over time. Right now, we have focused on streamlining the reporting process, and creating a dashboard that allows users to compare their indicator score and their assessment approach with other countries.

Monitoring and assessing water quality are difficult given that it varies naturally over space and time. So by collecting information on the number of monitoring stations being used, the type of water bodies being monitored (rivers, lakes and groundwater), and how often monitoring is performed, we gain an idea of how extensive monitoring programmes are, and how robust the assessment process that uses these is likely to be. Using this information, we help countries develop both their water quality monitoring and assessment capacity.

Do you have plans to make the hub more relevant to a wider audience?

SW: Initially we have a very clear target audience in mind, but in future we hope to package additional data sources that countries can use to report, and that might be of interest to a wider audience. For example, there are global Earth observation products that can be packaged in a ready-to-use format. Also we are planning to add more capacity development products and water quality assessment tools over time.

We often hear of water pollution caused by fertilizer run-off, mining activities and wastewater. What about saltwater intrusion?

SW: One freshwater problem that receives little media coverage is salinization – the gradual increase in the salinity of a freshwater body. In coastal zones, especially in aquifers that are being exploited, salt water intrusion can be a real problem. But salts can affect surface waters too.

In Europe, the recent Oder River disaster – which resulted in the death of 360 tons of fish –created alarm because the cause of the fish kill could not initially be traced. Careful analysis and evidence gathering identified that the disaster was caused by a toxic algal bloom. Algal blooms are unfortunately becoming more frequent globally, but this event was particularly alarming because the species of algae in question Prymnesium parvum, usually blooms in brackish waters only. This devastating impact along 500 km of the Oder river was caused by multiple pressures coming together in a perfect storm. Industrial wastewater effluents in the catchment had probably raised salinity. Combined with this, high nitrogen and phosphorus concentrations provided the nutrients for the algae, and with simultaneous drought conditions, concentrated the pollution, leading to the toxic bloom and subsequent disaster.

This event is a warning for other countries and makes clear how important monitoring and assessments are to understand these threats. This is especially true in countries where monitoring data are limited or even in some cases unavailable: the results of the SDG indicator 6.3.2 data drive showed us that low-income countries reported on just 1,300 of the total 77,000 water bodies in 2020.

What are the main challenges to robust data gathering and reporting?

SW: Most challenges are around collecting water quality data. These include challenges around ensuring constant resources are available to maintain the collection of data [as] there are a whole chain of events needed to ensure those data make it through to the reporting phase. Any break in the chain means that data go unused, and considering the cost of collecting these data in the first place, this is a real problem. Building capacity around all stages of the monitoring, but also the assessment process, is critical.

What resources does UNEP have to support countries in data gathering and analysis?

SW: We work closely with countries to support them in freshwater quality data management. The GEMS/Water Data Centre and the GEMS/Water Capacity Development Centre specialize in providing this support. We also work closely with the World Water Quality Alliance to make sure we are not reinventing any wheels. Our goal is to improve national capacity around early warning of potential threats to water quality. This will improve climate resilience, especially in those countries that are predicted to be most impacted. As we saw in the Oder case, slow and long-term change can reach a threshold moment resulting in devastating impacts. Without sound and robust monitoring, we don’t know how close those thresholds are.

For further information, please contact Stuart Warner: stuart.warner@un.org

Read more: https://www.unep.org/technical-highlight/new-portal-aims-improve-water-quality-through-better-data

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