Worldwide challenge for WHO quality standards

At the launch of WHO Guidelines for Drinking Water and Bonn Charter in Marrakech, IWA President Michael Rouse outlines the global significance of these standards to Natasha Wiseman

Having seen the Bonn Charter through from its inception in Germany in October 2001 to its launch at IWA World Water Congress in September 2004, Michael Rouse is in no doubt about its significance. “It’s the biggest advance in public health since chlorine,” he states.

“A group of people mainly from Europe, North America and Australia said: ‘What are we doing? We’re getting more and more parameters to measure more and more things in terms of drinking water. Is that the right way to go? Is there a better way?’

“Concurrently, WHO were working on their new guidelines and the principles that came out of the Bonn workshop got worked into the WHO guidelines too.”

Rouse says, “The emphasis was shifting from ‘end of pipe’ testing to managing risk. It was important to develop drinking water safety plans that look at what the risks are in a particular catchment and see that the controls that are developed are adequate to those risks.

“I felt that WHO guidelines were the nuts and bolts of the technical side but people were asking how they could be applied,” said Rouse.

Accord was reached at the second workshop, held in Bonn in April 2004. “It was agreed that we should establish the political dimension and set out the principles to be adopted for safe drinking water.

“We did not want it to be seen as something separate from the WHO guidelines but something complementary; that’s why we did this joint launch. It sets a high level of principles. IWA has driven it but lots of individuals believed this was the right way to go about it.”

What makes these guidelines different from what has gone before?

“They have still got what the risks are from the different chemicals,” Rouse clarified, “also, they still stress that the most important thing is to remove the pathogens. They have still got the advice about toxins. In addition, though, is the emphasis on drinking water safety plans. Now we are more concerned with managing than ‘measuring at the end’ which we now call ‘verification’.”

Expanding, Rouse explained, “Clearly, toxic levels of arsenic are worrying, you have to pick up on serious health risks, but where life expectancy is low, you are not going to worry about minor carcinogens.”

Determined that the philosophical impact of the guidelines will be profound in the developed and the developing world, Rouse enthused, “I am working in China, I’ve built it into Chinese drinking water regulations. It’s going to be used in Malaysia. Ghana is adopting it as part of its whole water strategy.”

When pressed about implementation of the guidelines at grassroots level, Rouse explained that the companion to the Bonn Charter is the implementation manual containing further advice and case studies.

“So far, that is only partly developed but it will be developed continuously. First of all it is important for countries to adopt the principles because the process of implementation is not so difficult.

“Water standardisation is an important worldwide challenge. We get emails from countries saying: ‘That’s not right because we do it this way’ – well you are not following the principles then are you?”

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