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close this bookUnited Nations University - Work in Progress Newsletter - Volume 15, Number 2, 1998 (UNU, 1998, 12 pages)
View the document(introductory text...)
View the documentWater for sustainable growth: "Nor any drop to drink"
View the documentThe work of UNU/INWEH: Improving water management
View the documentStanding in line for water: Cooperation on the Ganges and Brahmaputra
View the documentHydropolitics along the Danube
View the documentCity water: 21st century challenge
View the documentNew ways to govern the seas
Open this folder and view contentsRavaged seas in Central Asia
View the documentHistory's plagued seas: The Mediterranean
View the documentClimate, history and water
View the documentWater: The 21st century's oil?
View the documentA chemical eye on water
View the documentWhen oil troubles waters

A chemical eye on water

By Glen Paoletto

When the local fish catch falls off, it can be due to too much pollution in the water, too many new homes built nearby, or too much fishing - any one or all three combined. The result is the same: a lessened food supply. The UNU is attempting to build more interlinked information about this sort of damage to aquatic resources - to aid in fashioning more efficient and rational international water management.

The UNU work employs chemical monitoring techniques - a sophisticated scientific tool that provides information about water pollutants with intimate relevance to human health and welfare. The relevancy of such information is greatly enhanced when it becomes part of the computer data banks of the UNU's Global Environment Information Centre (GEIC), a facility at Tokyo Headquarters jointly sponsored by the Environment Agency of Japan. The GEIC promotes worldwide cooperation and understanding on environmental sustainability. In the following article, Glen Paoletto, an environmental specialist in charge of developing the GEIC, discusses some of the work of water monitoring. - Editor

Chemical monitoring might seem an esoteric technique, but it is actually a very practical development tool. It can help provide key information needed to make the right strategic decision about aquatic ecosystems. The target geographical area is the East Asia region, where the environment, both coastal lands and water, is suffering as a result of various development efforts. The UNU work has the objective of monitoring chemical and toxic pollutants in these waters.

UNU has two environmental monitoring studies in East Asia. The first is concerned with land-based sources of pollution in water, which are to blame for over 80% of global marine pollution. The research on land-based sources is tied to international accords that concern onshore polluting activities. The main one is the 1995 Washington Programme of Action on Land-Based Sources of Pollution.

The second project, the Asia-Pacific Mussel Watch, monitors coastal waters in the same region. Implemented jointly with UNESCO-IOC, the mussel watch involves many governmental laboratories in the region. Mussels purify the water, and hold toxic substances in their bodies. They are taken from coastal waters and analysed as indicators of pollution.

Between the two projects, a regional environmental scenario is being developed. Options are being fashioned as to what actions should be taken - by whom, when and where - to best suit sustainable development projects. International accords often miss vital interlinkages. The simplest ecosystem can involve a maze of interconnections and feedbacks. What may appear to be separate environmental problems can, in fact, be linked - both by cause and consequence.

For example, the fish catch may plummet in bays and estuaries due to various factors - pollution, habitat destruction, or overfishing. More often than not, it is due to a combination of factors. One set of laws, or one agency, can govern release of chemical pollutants; another, new building which destroys marine habitats; a third, the licensing of new fishing. International law, while an important tool, tends to treat each environmental issue separately. And individual countries discuss environmental issues generally only after they have reached an agreed-upon agenda.

This is changing, however, in a significant shift to what is called "environmental governance," involving a variety of actors. Today, corporations, NGOs, community groups and others are involved in the implementation and governance of both national and international obligations. New global scenarios are emerging. They owe a lot to the new information technologies that can help give emerging actors powerful new voices.

Within this new sort of paradigm, we can see several requirements arising. These include the need for:

· a closer examination of the link between national and international law and agreements;
· an assessment of how NGOs can participate;
· examination and refinement government administrations;
· increased transparency; and
· innovative ways in which information flows can be incorporated in the process.

Quality Regional Data

In drafting new legislation, lawyers and officials often forget about the essential need for basic environmental data of high quality. The UNU monitoring projects work on the basis that we need benchmarks on which to base research, and by which to judge results. Governments at international meetings, for example, have consistently noted the need for standardization of chemical analyses and other monitoring methodologies at a regional level. Such standardization, however, has proved very difficult to implement.

Successful bilateral chemical monitoring projects are relatively common, but successful multilateral monitoring efforts are extremely rare. They are difficult and expensive to implement; the participating scientists need training, equipment and support; the quality of data is often not good; and extensive cooperation of governments and laboratories is required. Multilateral monitoring programmes can run into political problems; the data obtained, for example, may be contrary to the interests of efforts to promote export-driven economies.

Reliable regional data in East Asia is either non-existent, or difficult to access. In order to develop regional data in the region, we need to transfer technologies and knowledge through training, and then request data to be generated. If data is calibrated and assured of its quality, researchers and others can effectively evaluate environments. Through policy research, the data can be translated into information valuable for governments and non-government sectors.

UNU Approach

The UNU bases its monitoring on the fact that countries have already agreed to multilateral monitoring. Its current monitoring projects extend to China, Indonesia, Japan, the Republic of Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, and Viet Nam.

The UNU promotes regional monitoring in a number of different ways. Strong support is given to participating scientists. A "bottom-up" approach is employed, emphasizing participation of the scientists. The advantages of "privatization" are stressed; scientists need to be given more freedom to take responsibility, receive benefits, and make suggestions. Various incentives are offered to participating scientists - from training in state-of-the-art techniques to strong networking facilities.

Project participants at a UNU training workshop. Photo 1.

Project participants at a UNU training workshop. Photo 2.

There is an overall emphasis on "training the trainers," thus continually expanding the base of expertise back in the home countries. In March 1998, a "training the trainers" workshop was held in Thailand. Techniques covered can be incorporated in already existing national monitoring programmes.

Monitoring PCBs

Among the pollutants the UNU is monitoring in East Asia are polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs); these chemical compounds, once widely used in electricity transformers, have been shown to be a human health hazard, and have been internationally banned since 1985. Because they are expensive to dispose of, requiring specialized equipment to do it properly, dumping them as waste at sea becomes attractive. Thailand, Malaysia and China at the moment face the problem of disposing of PCBs as they replace old transformers.

There are reports that PCBs are still being produced in one of the countries of the region. More information is needed to better assess their impact on the aquatic environment, and the options that may be available as a risk assessment exercise. As a preliminary result from UNU research, we have learned that, despite the 1985 ban on their production, PCBs seem to be increasing in marine waters. This indicates how lasting some destructive environmental actions can be.

Rice Pesticides

Other UNU research is already yielding valuable insights about rice pesticides, thought to be a major environmental hazard. But our studies suggest that these may no longer be a major problem in East Asia, provided appropriate policies are followed. Indonesia, for example, banned 57 insecticides and promoted Integrated Pest Management (IPM) practices. Rice yields subsequently rose by 15% between 1987-91, as pesticide use dropped 65%, saving US$120 million annually.

Ironically, development and wealth may work to increase the use of pesticides. Farmers tend to listen to salesmen more than other sources of information when choosing and applying pesticides. There is a clear conflict of interest: chemical corporations do not want pesticides reduced; governments and NGOs need to be more alerted to the issue. Educational problems are also involved. Farmers in developing countries are often unable to read labels, and unable to afford protective equipment.

Drinking Water

Our research indicates that drinking water in the East Asian region suffers from older technologies being used in water treatment plants. This is not true in all countries - in Malaysia, for example, the drinking water is considered to be clean at the source. In Thailand, however, the water infrastructure (in particular, old pipes) causes the intrusion of small traces of toxic chemicals in the water supply for major localities. In Viet Nam, industry discharges into rivers remain a major concern; here, the issue of transferring appropriate technologies comes into focus. Water treatment is also an issue in China. Even in a thoroughly modern society like Japan's, drinking water is polluted as a result being mixed with urban run-off; it remains an urban planning issue there.

Data from the UNU efforts will eventually be placed in the UNU database. Those interested can check at