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Duncan Ellison has been fighting for water quality and protecting the sacred resource his whole life. This former Executive Director of the Canadian Water and Wastewater Association, and a long active member of national and international standardization, ponders the global water dilemma and the role that standardization can play in solving this universal problem.

For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated by water. My first vivid memory of its power and beauty was when my family moved from the UK to Canada (British Columbia, to be exact) – an area rich in water and forestry. As a child, I discovered its vastness and bounty – both inside the classroom and on the field, literally. I guess you could say that my exposure to nature instilled in me a passion to protect, a life motto that emerged while studying Economics of Resource Development at the University of British Columbia.


If in some way this article helps, I would be a happy man.

The bulk of my professional life was spent in public and environmental health and safety, both in Canada and elsewhere. During this time, I was very involved in writing regulations in the area of public health and safety and implementing a new national programme on chemical safety. This period was halted by a two-year work assignment to Mexico with the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO). What struck me at the time was the region’s concern for water quality and quantity issues – something that would resurface time and again throughout my work.

Back in Canada, I resumed a career in environmental health and water management until I retired from the civil service in 1992. It was then that I joined the Canadian Water and Wastewater Association (CWWA) – the national voice of Canadian municipalities on local water issues – as Executive Director.

During my 18-year tenure, I became impressed (and still am) by the dedication of municipal water services and their managers to supply adequate volumes of potable water to community residents and to collect and treat the generated wastewaters. They do so through conformance with regulations or standards, motivated by their responsibility to protect public and environmental health.

It was during this time that I decided to volunteer my expertise to a water management evaluation project in Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe, and help tackle the water supply problems in the Kathmandu Valley of Nepal. These experiences furthered my interest and determination in solving water management issues, wherever they may be.


At the ceremony of the Industry Hall of Fame Award in 2012 (“To perpetuate the memory of those living and deceased who have made the most significant contributions to the field of public water supply.”) – I am of course still living !

Turning over a new leaf

Just when I thought my career had reached its peak, an opportunity presented itself to get involved in standards again, but this time directly in water. So in 1998, I became active in several standardization projects addressing water technology and treatment matters, both in Canada and the USA.

It was only natural for me to want to be part of an international effort to develop standards for the assessment of the performance of municipal water services. So when ISO created ISO/TC 224 for water service activities relating to drinking water supply systems and wastewater systems, I couldn’t help but join in this work. I even became Chair of the Standards Council of Canada Mirror Committee, a position I still hold today.

A high point in my career in standards came in 2011 with the setting up of the ISO Task Force on Water. I was very fortunate to have been chosen to participate in its work, which consisted of recommending future areas of standardization and other strategic issues, including :

  • Making the best use of the water resources available to us collectively, and
  • Treating our water reserves as scarce resources that need to be protected, conserved and used sustainably.

It was extremely rewarding to have been part of this history-making Task Force, but it also feels as though so much more work lies ahead of us. Despite this, I continue to be excited by, and dedicated to, standardization in water management.


Three cheers for water standards

We know that there is increasing desertification in many parts of the world. We know that climate change is altering weather patterns such as rainfall and drought periods, and we know that global warming is affecting the planet’s capability to store water in snow packs and glaciers, which also feed our river and lake systems and aquifers – the sources of water supply.

For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated by water.

The good news is that the quantity of water on the planet will not change, although its distribution regionally and seasonally is already shifting. The same applies to the quality of source waters readily available for use. We must tackle these problems at the root, and this requires concerted international action. Can standardization processes help solve the global water crisis ? The answer is yes, yes, yes !

The first “yes” is for ISO’s ability to muster an international group of like-minded professionals who are not only willing to share their experience and thoughts to resolve commonly faced problems, but who are aware of, and take into account, the problems and needs of all regions of the world.

The second “yes” is for the power of ISO’s global reach through its members in 164 countries around the world. These members have the influence to encourage the adoption of ISO standards within the relevant national communities of interest.

The third “yes” is for ISO’s periodic review process of standards that enables them to remain market-relevant. The result : no standard is ever out of date !

Simply put, International Standards are often an excellent and effective means of helping developing and developed countries establish base practices to improve water management activities and services in their countries.


Municipal water matters

My focus, both personally and professionally, and that of my colleagues in the several ISO technical committees with which I am involved (ISO/TC 224, the recently formed ISO/TC 275, Sludge recovery, recycling, treatment and disposal, and the newly established ISO/TC 282, Water re-use) is largely surrounding the use of water within the municipal context.

We are all aware that the municipal context also includes the greater environment of watersheds and the other uses of water within the watersheds by agriculture and fisheries (our critical sources of food) as well as by industry (our critical source of employment and wealth), and for human recreational purposes. Each of these is a fundamental contributor to human well-being.

With my wife, Lorraine, whose understanding and support has made all my volunteer work on standardization possible.

Municipal water use will “take” between 10 % and 20 % of available water resources depending on the watershed and the population and economic activities within that watershed. Yet all that water is in fact returned to the watershed. The point to remember is that the water is within the physical control of municipal water service organizations. From the time it is withdrawn from the water source, through the treatment and distribution stages of potable water services, to the collection and treatment of wastewater prior to its discharge back to the environment. The users (consumers) of the water are also customers of the organization, and therefore subject to influence by the water services operator – an influence which must be encouraged !

What standardization can do is codify best management practices by those who manage water services in both large and small water systems in both urban and rural environments, keeping in mind the needs and capabilities of developing countries where the impact of the global water crisis on our populations and environment may be most evident.


Power in numbers

More needs to be done to raise the profile of ISO standards for water and, related to that, the number of countries that participate in the work. We must aid ISO in communicating to all countries, and their national stakeholders, the crucial importance of these standards in supporting efficient and sustainable use of our water resources. But equally essential is the role of the participating experts. We must use our speaking and communicating opportunities to encourage wider adoption, either as national standards or as practices within the water services communities of stakeholders. We have to become strident advocates for our fine work.

The expertise of the representatives involved in ISO technical committees is enormous and their dedication to the task unwavering. We have to find a way of encouraging those who need to take up and apply the standards to do so. If in some way this article helps in that task, I would be a happy man.


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