Water resource policy

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Water resource policy encompasses the policy-making processes that affect the collection, preparation, use and disposal of water to support human uses and protect environmental quality. Water policy addresses provision, use, disposal and sustainability decisions. Provision includes identification, access, preparation for use and distribution. Uses include direct human consumption, agriculture, industry and ecosystem protection.[1] Policy must set the rules for how water is allocated to the different uses. Disposal involves wastewater treatment and stormwater/flood management. Sustainability addresses issues such as aquifer depletion, reservoir management and mineral buildup.

A second dimension of issues addresses how policies are created, executed and amended. Since water resources often cross political boundaries, water policies must often be negotiated among multiple political entities (nations, states, etc.) Commentators such as Halcrow project resource wars as demand continues to increase.[2]:27 Policy makers typically adopt a set of best management practices BMPs to govern water management. BMPs cover everything from dam construction to wastewater treatment protocols. Water resource policies may encompass "regions, catchments, shared or transboundary water resources, and inter-basin transfers. Policy leads management practices, but best management practices are identified, evaluated, modified and disseminated by policy making bodies."[3]

Water resource policy issues are receiving increased attention[2] as water shortages are believed to be at crisis levels in some regions.[4] These regional crises have potentially worldwide implications.[5][6]

World water availability

Water as a resource[edit]

When considering its utility as a resource and developing water resource policy, water can be classified into 4 different categories: green, blue, gray, and virtual water. Blue water is surface and groundwater, like water in rivers, lakes, and aquifers.[7] Green water is rainwater that was precipitated on soil that can be used naturally for plants and agriculture.[8][7] Gray water is water that has been contaminated by human use or proximity. The gray water classification can range from freshwater fertilizer runoff pollution[9] to water contaminated from dishwashers and showers.[10] Virtual water is the water consumed to make an agricultural or industrial product.[7] Calculating virtual water of a commodity is used to determine the water footprint of a country and see how much water they are importing and exporting through their goods.[11][8]

Global water resource policy objectives[edit]

According to the World Water Assessment Programme, a UN-sanctioned Task Force, the objectives for global water resource policies include developing a standardized method for monitoring water sector progress and performance, improving reporting and identifying priority actions.[12] In all nations conflict between users are expected to intensify, complicating policy-making.[13]

Institutional participants[edit]


The 1977 Mar del Plata United Nations Conference on Water was the first intergovernmental water conference, leading to the 1980 Declaration of the International Drinking Water Supply and Sanitation Decade by the UN General Assembly.[14]

The United Nations Environmental Program hosts water resource policy-making agencies and disseminating BMPs worldwide. This role has been enhanced by various policy directives and other initiatives:

  • UN General Assembly Resolution 3436 (XXX) Agenda 21
  • 1997 Nairobi Declaration on the Role and Mandate of UNEP and
  • 2000 Malmö Ministerial Declaration adopted at the First Global Ministerial Environment Forum.[15]
  • 2002 Earth Summit 2015 safe drinking water targets.[16]
  • 2007 World Bank report series on Environment and Development[17] that in 2009 reported on Environmental Flows in Water Resources Policies, Plans, and Projects[18]


Treaties between nations may enumerate policies, rights and responsibilities. For instance, a treaty between Poland and Germany, "An Agreement to establish cooperation on water resources management" provides:

  • supply of drinking water of good quality,
  • protection of surface water,
  • supply of water to agriculture,
  • fight against water pollution.[19]

The Permanent Court of International Justice adjudicates disputes between nations, including water rights litigation.[20]


Some non-governmental organizations have consultative status at the UN. One such group is the World Water Council, an "international multi-stakeholder platform" established in 1996 to act "at all levels, including the highest decision-making level...[in] protection, development, planning, management and use of water in all its dimensions...for the benefit of all life on earth." It was an outgrowth of the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development in Dublin and at the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit. The Council is based in Marseilles.[21] Its multi-stakeholder basis as due to the fact that "authority for managing the world's fresh water resources is fragmented amongst the world's nations, hundreds of thousands of local governments, and countless non-governmental and private organizations, as well as a large number of international bodies."

In 1994, the International Water Resources Association (IWRA) organized a special session on the topic in its Eighth World Water Congress held in Cairo in November 1994, leading to creation of the World Water Council.[21]

Business water resource policy initiatives[edit]

The World Business Council for Sustainable Development engages stakeholders in H2OScenarios[22] that consider various alternative policies and their effects.

In June 2011 in Geneva, the Future of Water Virtual Conference addressed water resource sustainability. Issues raised included: water infrastructure monitoring,[23] global water security, potential resource wars, interaction between water, energy, food and economic activity, the "true value" of "distribution portions of available water" and a putative "investment gap" in water infrastructure.[2][24] It was asserted that climate change will affect scarcity of water but the water security presentation emphasized that a combined effect with population growth "could be devastating".[2] Identified corporate water related risks include physical supply, regulatory and product reputation.[2]:23

This forum indicated policy concerns with:

  • trade barriers
  • price supports
  • treatment of water as a free good creates underpricing of 98% of water[2]:2
  • need to intensify debate
  • need to harmonize public/private sectors[2]:28

Structural constraints on policy makers[edit]

Policies are implemented by organizational entities created by government exercise of state power. However, all such entities are subject to constraints upon their autonomy.[25]

Jurisdictional issues[edit]

Subject matter and geographic jurisdiction are distinguishable.[26] The jurisdiction of any water agency is limited by political boundaries and by enabling legislation. In some cases, limits target specific types of uses (wilderness, agricultural, urban-residential, urban-commercial, etc.) A second part of jurisdictional limitation governs the subject matter that the agency controls, such as flood control, water supply and sanitation, etc. In many locations, agencies may face unclear or overlapping authority, increasing conflicts and delaying conflict resolution.

Typical information access issue[edit]

As reported by the non-partisan Civil Society Institute, a 2005 US Congressional study on water supply was suppressed and became the target of a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) litigation.[27]

Multi-jurisdictional issues[edit]

One jurisdiction's projects may cause problems in other jurisdictions. For instance, Monterey County, California controls a body of water that acts as a reservoir for San Luis Obispo County. The specific responsibilities for managing the resource must therefore be negotiated



Freshwater resources on earth are under increasing stress and depletion because of pollution, climate change, and consumptive use.[28]


Flash flood in Charlottesville, Virginia, United States near the University of Virginia in 2017.

Water can produce a natural disaster in the form of tsunamis, hurricanes, rogue waves and storm surge. Land-based floods can originate from infrastructural issues like bursting dams or levee failure during surges, as well as environmental phenomena like rivers overflowing their banks during increased rainfall events, urban stormwater flooding, or snowmelt.[29][30][31] The increased magnitude and frequency of floods are a result of urbanization and climate change.[31][30] Urbanization increases stormwater runoff during large rain events. Surface runoff is water that flows when heavy rains do not infiltrate soil; excess water from rain, meltwater, or other sources flowing over the land. This is a major component of the water cycle.[32] Runoff that occurs on surfaces before reaching a channel is also called a nonpoint source. When runoff flows along the ground, it can pick up soil contaminants including, but not limited to petroleum, pesticides, or fertilizers that become discharge or nonpoint source pollution.[33][34][35]

Water resource policy encompasses flood risk management and development of infrastructure to mitigate damages from floods.[36] Water resource policy solutions to flooding include land drainage for agriculture, urban planning focused on flood prevention, rainwater harvesting, and permeable surfacing of developed areas.[30]


Partially emptied Yufeng Reservoir during a drought in 2015. Photo taken in Hainan, China.

A drought is defined as a period of dry conditions with either less precipitation or more depleted water reserves than normal.[37] Because droughts are defined relative to the area's normal weather patterns and water availability, the definition varies from place to place. Overall, defining a drought takes into consideration 1.) the duration, intensity, and area of lessened precipitation or water availability and 2.) the estimated environmental, social and economic impact of the limited water.[37] For example, in Colorado, paleohydrologic data, or tree rings from areas affected by drought, have been used to define drought extent and understand the impact of past droughts to improve future water resource planning and decision making.[38]

With climate change, the frequency and intensity of droughts have been increasing but water resource policy is typically reactive instead of proactive.[39] Droughts have negative economic impacts on many sectors including agriculture, environment, energy production and transportation.[39] Local and national governments normally respond to droughts once they happen and are in crisis mode, whereas a robust policy would include early drought monitoring systems, preparedness plans, energy response programs, and impact assessment and management procedures to help mitigate the effects of drought on the economy and the environment.[39] Different nations have different policies regarding national droughts.[40][41][42] In 2013, the High-level Meeting on National Drought Policy (HMNDP) was organized by the World Meteorological Organization, the Secretariat of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) to help nations develop drought preparedness policies and plans for international emergency relief efforts in the event of droughts.[39] There were 414 participants from 87 countries that unanimously adopted the HMNDP declaration at the end of the meeting rallying national governments to implement drought management policies.[43]

Oceans and salinity[edit]

A White Hake fishery from the Northeast Fisheries Science Center (NOAA): http://www.nefsc.noaa.gov/history/

The oceans provide many important resources for the planet and humans including: transportation, marine life, food, minerals, oil, natural gas, and recreation.[44] Water resource policy involving the ocean includes jurisdiction and regulation issues, pollution regulation and reduction, over exploitation prevention, and desalination to make drinking water.[44][45]

National jurisdictions of the oceans are dictated by coastal proximity. Oceans along coastlines of nations are considered territories of that nation. For the first 12 nautical miles away from the nation's coastal border, the country has rights to the ocean for its resources, including fish and minerals, and it considered a continuation of that nation's territory.[46] The countries' economic zone, consisting of both the water column and the seafloor, continues out for 200 nautical miles where they are still entitled to the areas' resources.[46] On the other hand, the Antarctic and Southern Oceans are shared by 45 state parties under the Antarctic Treaty, so the status and ownership of Antarctic and Southern Ocean resources is unclear legally.[47] Additionally, some areas are conserved as Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) and resource exploitation is prohibited. For example, by 1997 off the coast of California, there were 103 MPAs.[48]

The oceans are becoming polluted and exploited for resources.[44] With increasing carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels, the oceans are experiencing acidification.[49] Decreasing the pH of the ocean makes it more difficult for marine organisms, like coral reefs, to make their calcium carbonate shells.[49] Additionally, pollution is threatening oceanic resources, especially near coasts.[44] Oil rigs and undersea mineral extraction can create problems that affect shorelines, marine life, fisheries and human safety. Decommissioning of such operations has another set of issues. Rigs-to-reefs is a proposal for using obsolete oil rigs as substrate for coral reefs that has failed to reach consensus. There have been oil tanker accidents and oil pipeline spills like the Exxon Valdez oil spill and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.[44] Ballast water, fuel/oil leaks and trash originating from ships foul harbors, reefs and estuaries pollute the oceans. Ballast water may contain toxins, invasive plants, animals, viruses, and bacteria. Additionally, marine debris, or industrially processed materials that have been dumped in the oceans, threatens the wellbeing and biodiversity of marine organisms.[50] Along coasts, oceans are threatened by land runoff that includes fertilizers, insecticides, chemicals, and organic pollutants that can cause algal blooms and dead zones.[44]

Fisheries also have an effect on oceans and can fall under water resource policy rules. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), 87% of the fisheries worldwide are either fully exploited or overexploited.[51] Regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs) control and oversee high sea fisheries under the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and the UN FishStocks Agreement.[51] Poor management by RFMOs, government subsidies for fish, and illegal fish catches have contributed to overfishing and over exploitation of ocean resources.[51] Ecosystem-based fishery management (EBFM) is an attempt to correct some RFMO mismanagement by limiting biomass that is allowed to be removed by fisheries, and by making sure fishing is more targeted for the desired species.[52] One problem EBFM tries to eliminate is bycatch, or unintentional catching of the wrong fish species.[52] For example, white marlin, an endangered billfish, is mostly accidentally caught and killed by swordfish and tuna longline fisheries.[52]

Desalination of seawater is becoming a resource for coastal nations needing freshwater for industry and drinking, particularly areas with over exploited groundwater aquifers and surface water, pollution of freshwater, or unreliable water supply due to climate change.[45] Desalination is particularly popular in arid, water-stressed regions like Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Cyprus, Israel, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Australia, and California, USA.[53][54][55][45]


Surface and groundwater[edit]

Surface water and groundwater can be studied and managed as separate resources as a single resource in multiple forms.[56] Jurisdictions typically distinguish three recognized groundwater classifications: subterranean streams, underflow of surface waters, and percolating groundwater.[57]


Drinking water and water for utilitarian uses such as washing, crop cultivation and manufacture is competed for by various constituencies:

  • Residential
  • Agriculture. "Many rural people practice subsistence rain fed agriculture as a basic livelihood strategy, and as such are vulnerable to the effects of drought or flood that can diminish or destroy a harvest. "[58]
  • Construction
  • Industrial
  • Municipal or institutional activities

Surface water (runoff) and wastewater discharge[edit]

Regulatory bodies address piped waste water discharges to surface water that include riparian and ocean ecosystems.[59] These review bodies are charged with protecting wilderness ecology, wildlife habitat, drinking water, agricultural irrigation and fisheries. Stormwater discharge can carry fertilizer residue and bacterial contamination from domestic and wild animals.[60] They have the authority to make orders which are binding upon private actors such as international corporations[61] and do not hesitate to exercise the police powers of the state. Water agencies have statutory mandate which in many jurisdictions is resilient to pressure from constituents and lawmakers in which they on occasion stand their ground despite heated opposition from agricultural interests[62] On the other hand, the Boards enjoy strong support from environmental concerns such as Greenpeace,Heal the Ocean and Channelkeepers.[63]

Water quality issues or sanitation concerns reuse or water recycling and pollution control which in turn breaks out into stormwater and wastewater.


Wastewater is water that has been discharged from human use. The primary discharges flow from the following sources:

  • residences
  • commercial properties
  • industry
  • agriculture

Sewage is technically wastewater contaminated with fecal and similar animal waste byproducts, but is frequently used as a synonym for wastewater. Origination includes cesspool and sewage outfall pipes.

Water treatment is subject to the same overlapping jurisdictional constraints which affect other aspects of water policy.[25] For instance, levels of chloramines with their resulting toxic trihalomethane by-product are subject to Federal guidelines even though water management implementing those policy constraints are carried out by local water boards.[64]

See also[edit]


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External links[edit]