Sink or swim: how to save the world’s water

Water is imperative to survival but is under threat. Standards are vital to preserving, rehabilitating and managing water resources. Here’s why. 

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There’s rarely a day, it seems, when the issue of water isn’t in the headlines. Whether it’s flooding, drought and forest fires, infrastructure damage during conflict, glacial melt or a reminder of the long-standing fact that one in three people don’t have access to clean supplies of it, water frequently tops the news agenda. And so it should.  

Even without the spectre of climate change, humans face a lot of water-based challenges. These range from ensuring clean water supplies and effective sanitation, to managing wastewater disposal responsibly and safely, irrigating efficiently, and creating minimal wastage and pollution when water is used in industrial processes. 

The lengthy “how to” list includes: managing flood-prone areas, tackling microplastics, stopping groundwater and ocean pollution, restoring unhealthy and dwindling water resources, and countering water waste and overuse. Added to this are the increased risks of conflict over water resources and the associated mass displacement as they dwindle. UN Water estimates that by 2030, water scarcity could have displaced hundreds of millions of people. Against this backdrop, the United Nations’ International Decade for Action on Water 2018-2028 will be crucial to meeting the world’s water-related challenges. 

Targets and standards 

Reflecting water’s vital standing, two of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals – SDG 6 (clean water and sanitation) and SDG 14 (life below water) – deal directly with some of these challenges, while many more are woven into the other 15 goals. In line with this, ISO has hundreds of standards related to water, many of which are dedicated specifically to these two SDGs. 

It should come as little surprise, therefore, that ISO standards cover almost every water issue imaginable, from the highly specific, such as product specifications and the efficacy of water infrastructure (pipes, valves, joints, etc.), to water quality assessment tools, guidance on water management, and specific standards related to areas like sanitation. Born out of high-level expert debate and knowledge, ISO standards represent consensus on practical solutions and best practice. 

With the climate threat looming, ISO is going a step further in developing a dedicated series of standards that support climate change adaptation for the water sector. Its forthcoming ISO 24566 is aimed at water utilities, and identifies and lays out principles for integrating climate change impacts into the planning and design of water provision. This type of work is crucial as it will help address growing problems like water stress, ensuring continued water provision for communities as environmental challenges mount. 

ISO has relevant standards governing water reuse in urban areas. 

Strengthening communities 

The world needs to get water smart. Multiple tools are available to help communities anticipate, plan for and adapt to the changing climate. The most relevant of these are International Standards. Standards help to ensure the quality of the product or service. In the case of water, this encompasses the whole cycle, ranging from the product itself – potable water – to the quality of the infrastructure used to deliver it and the processes employed to dispose of and/or treat wastewater.  

As an effort to visualize community resilience, ISO has relevant standards governing water reuse in urban areas, developed through a dedicated group of water experts. Underlining why this is so critical, the United Nations Environment Programme reveals that urban areas present one of the more difficult places for authorities to manage supply and wastewater. Yet, if not collected and treated properly, urban wastewater is one of the main sources of water pollution, making standards in this area vital. 

Regulators typically rely on ISO standards as a basis on which to create policy. If we can properly align local and global water governance and management, we can prepare the tools, the organizational blueprint and the political momentum needed to keep humanity safe from the global threat of a volatile climate. 

However, water management isn’t solely the remit of government and policy makers. Increasingly, businesses are pursuing a more sustainable approach in line with net zero and other targets, looking at ways to reduce their water footprint and more effectively address the water waste from their operations. Currently, though, our arsenal for facilitating collective water action is fragmented, preventing us from reaching full effectiveness.  

A picture of cooperation 

Clear guidelines are essential to all parties in properly addressing their water needs and challenges, and while ISO standards are universal, they also provide the latitude to develop solutions that meet local needs. Enabling this is the fact that standards offer a common language and a baseline expectation – cooperation at its best.  

This is important in situations where solutions to water resource issues are being sought, either locally or between countries. All those involved in discussion – whether at government or local level, and potentially with manufacturers, business or development agencies – can use the standards best practice to engage in dialogue for solutions that move beyond boundaries, be they local, national or international. 

As we head further into the UN Decade of Action on Water, the scale of our efforts is starting to bear fruit. Reliable, accessible and sustainable supplies of clean water are the strongest foundation we have to ensure the long-term success of our climate challenges. As poet, W.H. Auden once said: “Thousands have lived without love, not one without water.” We must, therefore, refocus our attention on the standards that simultaneously catalyse progress in solving our common challenges. ISO’s standards and guidelines may not hit the headlines, but they are integral to helping address these. 

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