Urgent need for Asia-wide water quality monitoring

 We have heard about civil society movements for human rights, women’s rights and a plethora of other rights. We have heard about public protests against privatisation of water, building of dams, rise in prices and oppressive political regimes. But, have we ever heard of citizens coming together in large groups to measure and collect data?

Asia’s water is under threat. Agriculture, industry and municipalities are competing for limited water resources. Not only are they depleting rivers and lakes but they are also discharging their wastewater and solid waste into these water bodies to create foul-smelling eyesores in the place of scenic, pleasurable havens. Governments across the region have made pollution control regulations, however, these are yet to be implemented sincerely. Meanwhile, poor water quality is killing or weakening vulnerable populations on one hand and driving up the cost of water treatment on the other.

The problem is that not many citizens in Asia have access to information about the state of their water bodies. While some rivers in Asia do have monitoring stations to measure various water quality parameters, this data is not easily available to citizens. In any case, there is no comprehensive system in place in most Asian countries to obtain critical data about water quality in the numerous rivers, lakes, estuaries and ponds that are scattered over Asia. It is a well-known paradigm that what we cannot measure, we cannot improve.

The question arises – what can we do as citizens to get involved in the measuring of water quality parameters and thereby with the protection of our waters?

In 2002, Roberta Savage, President of America’s Clean Water Foundation started an excellent initiative that has culminated in the World Water Monitoring Day (WWMD), which provides an opportunity for citizens to monitor their water resources. For a period of one month prior to October 18 (which has been changed to September 18 from 2007 to suit the people living in cold climates), groups and individuals come together to collect samples of water from pre-registered sites. Four key indicators are measured – Dissolved oxygen (DO), Temperature, pH and Turbidity. Some groups also monitor the presence of macroinvertebrates, which are a good indication of the quality of water. The observations are sent to the international database through an online process. The deadline for reporting data to the WWMD database is December 18 after which a yearly report is prepared for easy access by anyone.

The 2007 report available now at www.worldwatermonitoringday.org says that 43 countries reported water quality data in 2007, up from 39 countries in 2006. A total of 46,117 participants monitored sites worldwide in 2007, up by 61% from 2006. The number of water monitoring test kits distributed across the world has gone up to 10,636, which is 2,500 more than the previous year. People are also allowed to use their own monitoring devices to report data, if they wish.

A quick look at the results for 2007 reveals the expected. Asian citizens have not taken an active interest in contributing data to the WWMD database, barring a few exceptions like Taiwan, Nepal and Singapore. Sites in the US account for about 63% of the 3,544 sites monitored worldwide, while densely populated countries like China, India, Indonesia and Pakistan with probably the most polluted waters have just sent results from 2, 5, 1 and zero sites respectively. Even the few observations sent in reveal alarming levels of pollution. Nepal needs a special mention for sending in results from 46 sampling sites and its average DO levels of 5.96ppm is higher than many countries.

While clean water is everyone’s right, it is also our collective responsibility to safeguard it. Don’t Asian manufacturers and distributors of water quality equipment sense a business opportunity in World Water Monitoring Day?

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