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A2.2 Legislation for water quality


Measures to protect the quality of water resources should be encoded in legislation, and may be preventive or corrective.

Preventive measures include effluent and discharge regulations, technical standards and requirements for treating polluted effluents, economic instruments as well as quality standards for receiving waters, set according to expected or existing water uses and services. Legislation sets out the principles upon which pollution control is based. These and other measures to control non-point pollution can be integrated into programmes tailored for specific sites and regions (see C6 and C7). Corrective measures include cease and desist orders, compensation for damage and economic losses, and abatement and remediation requirements. The polluter pays principle allocates responsibility for damage costs.

Emergency actions and citizen suits can also be tools to enforce water quality, and under some legal systems can be used even by those who do not have a direct interest or legal right.

Other legal instruments for quality protection include liability, both strict and fault based, reversals in the burden of the proof, joint and several liability for pollution caused by more than one actor, fines, and other penalties such as imprisonment. Personal liability for employees and officers of corporations causing pollution can operate as a useful deterrent. In some systems, fines and other financial penalties are tailored to offset any financial advantages accruing to polluters. Water quality legislation is enforced through inspection, monitoring, record keeping, reporting and related powers.

The special problems posed by groundwater are addressed through various measures, including: water quality testing; land use and catchment protection programmes; control of diffuse pollution, leachates, pesticides and fertilisers; requiring a no-concerns certificate before issuing groundwater permits; control of point-source pollution and of hazardous and mining waste; regulation of underground storage tanks and of injection activities, and well head protection. The transfer of waste products between the different environmental media such as air, water and soil is recognised in some countries, and legislation can be introduced to ensure that waste disposal follows the least damaging environmental path.

To be effective, water quality law needs a supporting system of indicators and institutional capacity for the measurement, interpretation and application of environmental quality objectives or water standards.

Lessons learned

Water quality legislation protects water in resource management and planning (see C2) and is as important as water rights law for the establishment of IWRM. Specific lessons learned include:

  • Enforcement of water quality legislation is more complex than controls on discharges alone;
  • The complexity of the issues requires good collaboration between dischargers and enforcement agencies;
  • Self-regulation by dischargers may be useful, but monitoring and random sampling by the regulatory agency is often the only feasible procedure to ensure quality;
  • In setting water quality goals and standards it is important to ensure that they are technically achievable and that there is an institutional capacity to monitor and apply standards;
  • Water quality laws must be included when overall water law is being revised (see A2.3);
  • Over-ambitious or over-rigorous standards may be excessively costly to apply and may reduce the credibility of the legislation, thus undermining compliance.

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