Stockholm International Water Institute / International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis / Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development / UN Environment

Opportunities and limits to water pollution regulations

Sunday 27 August | 14.00-15.30 | Room: FH 300
Photo: iStock

Managing water pollution, from source-to-sea, is a challenge requiring regulatory, economic and voluntary practices. These approaches have strengths and limits. Decision-makers face complex questions: How much pollution is acceptable and affordable without hindering sustainable growth? What policy responses reduce pollution at lowest cost to society? How can emerging contaminants with uncertain consequences be managed? Join us to debate these issues and more over three sessions. 

Session II: Water regulation under scientific uncertainty: The challenge of managing contaminants of emerging concern (CECs). CECs (e.g. pharmaceuticals, antibiotics, personal care products, nanomaterials) present a global water quality challenge with potentially serious threats to human health and ecosystems. This session will discuss policy responses given scientific advancement in identifying, monitoring, preventing and processing CECs.


Water regulation under scientific uncertainty: the challenge of managing contaminants of emerging concern 

14:00 Introduction and Icebreaker
Moderator: Hannah Leckie, OECD

14:05 Update on the scientific understanding of CECs and the risks posed to human and environmental health
Alistair Boxall, University of York

14:15 Benefits of international science and policy cooperation to promote a paradigm shift in water quality and safety assessment framework
Armelle Hebert, Veolia R&I

14:25 Water Footprint Assessment as a policy tool for pollution regulations
Ertug Ercin
, Water Footprint Network

14:35 Interactive mini-meeting: new emerging science and incentives to change behavior

14:45 Policy strategies for contaminants of emerging concern in water
Florence Metz
, University of Bern

15:55 Priorities for regulatory mechanisms and frameworks to address contaminants of emerging concern
Sarantuyaa Zandaryaa, UNESCO

15:05 Panel and audience discussion

15:25 Conclusion
Hannah Leckie, OECD

15:30 Close of session


Water of adequate quality is an increasingly scarce resource. At least half the world’s population suffers from polluted water and the situation is set to worsen in all regions of the world. Population growth, coupled with climate change, are placing pressure on the ability of finite water bodies to process wastewater and contaminants. In the future, resource management should be developed using a more systematic, holistic approach that is incorporated with ecosystem and SDG thinking.

Improving water quality is a critical element of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, playing an essential role in reducing poverty and disease and promoting sustainable growth. The cumulative effects of point and diffuse source water pollution can undermine sustainable economic growth. In developed economies, the focus on point source pollution as a means of improving water quality is reaching its limit, as pollution from unregulated diffuse sources continues to rise. Eutrophication from runoff of excess nutrients is considered the most prevalent challenge globally. Developing economies will be tasked with the difficulty of managing both point and diffuse source pollution; in particular there are substantial gains to be made for the economy, human health, environment, and social development from greater investment in sanitation and wastewater treatment. Contaminants of Emerging Concern (CECs) (e.g., pharmaceuticals, personal care products, microplastics, industrial chemicals, and nanomaterials) challenge both traditional policy regulations and existing wastewater treatment infrastructure.

A new paradigm is needed to change how we view, use, and manage water resources in a way that creates less pollution. There are a number of potential solution pathways based around reducing excessive use of inputs (e.g., fertilisers, pesticides, and chemicals), implementing best land use practices, and technical interventions to separate pollutants at point of use -- as opposed to confronting the accumulation of contaminants downstream. The recovery and re-use of resource elements (water, nutrients and energy) contained within wastewater is a promising growth area that requires continued innovation. CECs pose a particular challenge for wastewater reuse. Bringing about such changes presents obstacles and requires economic and societal considerations.

Emerging, innovative policies can be adapted and scaled-up to more effectively manage water pollution. Improving water quality from source-to-sea requires managing both point and diffuse sources of pollution, integrating with land use management and planning, and water quantity management. A mix of economic, regulatory and administrative tools exist, though they require moral persuasion and policy coherence across sectors to achieve desired outcomes. Collaboration among industry, regulatory bodies and the research community is required. Computer modelling is proving a useful tool in placing limits on diffuse pollution and enabling land managers to innovate farm and land management practices. Innovative monitoring methodologies, safe effect-based thresholds values, international cooperation, and source-directed, precautionary policies are essential tools to guide the formulation and implementation of regulations that reduce contaminants of emerging concern. Reaching our goals will require the adoption of a mix of policy interventions that embrace the OECD water management principles -- pollution prevention, treatment at source, the polluter pays and beneficiary pays principles, equity, and policy coherence.