Water Sanitation Health

Guidelines for safe recreational water environments
Volume 1 : Coastal and fresh waters

Executive summary


Application of guidelines and management options for healthy recreational water use

The possible negative health outcomes associated with the use of recreational water environments result in the need for guidelines that can be converted into locally (i.e., nationally or regionally) appropriate and applicable standards and associated management of sites to ensure a safe, healthy and aesthetically pleasing environment.

A number of points need to be considered in converting guidelines into regulations adapted to local circumstances. Using the recreational water quality classification system for faecal pollution as an example, the principal requirements that would need to be incorporated into provisions would normally include:

  • The establishment of a water quality classification system.
  • The obligation upon the national or appropriate regulatory authorities to maintain a listing of all recognized recreational water areas in a publicly accessible location.
  • The definition of responsibility for establishing a plan for recreational water safety management and its implementation.
  • Independent surveillance and provision of information to the public.
  • The obligation to act, including the requirement to immediately consult with the public health body and inform the public as appropriate on detection of conditions potentially hazardous to health.
  • A general requirement to strive to ensure the safest achievable recreational water use conditions.

Several management interventions can be identified:

  • Regulatory compliance, which includes risk management, is the making of decisions on whether or not risks to well-being are acceptable or ought to be controlled or reduced and for which responsibility lies in the hands of society regulators and participants in the activities; regulatory action at both the local level (i.e., improvements to facilities to eliminate hazards and thereby to reduce risks) and the policy level (usually taking the form of creating standards or guidelines to control risk); enforcement of regulatory compliance; and monitoring and standards, whose aim is to promote improvement.
  • Control and abatement technology (e.g., the control and abatement of pollution discharges with respect to the various levels of sewage treatment). When planning for the development of new recreational water projects or for the upgrading of existing ones, a health impact assessment (HIA), which considers changes in environmental and social determinants of health resulting from development, should be incorporated. HIA results in a package of recommended measures to safeguard health or mitigate health risks, as well as health promotional activities.
  • Public awareness raising and enhancing the capacity for informed personal choice are increasingly seen as important factors in ensuring the safe use of recreational water environments and an important management intervention. One important tool used by associations and governments to enhance the public’s capacity for informed personal choice is beach grading or award schemes.
  • The provision of public health advice, is a key input to public awareness and informed personal choice, since it is vital that the public receive the correct information. One aspect of this management intervention is response to short-term incidents and breaches of standards. Prevention and rescue services can also be considered to fall within this intervention.

Multiple stakeholders are involved in the process of adapting and applying guidelines and standards. One way in which all the relevant stakeholders can be brought together is through the establishment of an integrated management system for marine and freshwater recreational areas based on the concept of integrated coastal area management (ICAM). This involves comprehensive assessment, the setting of objectives, and the planning and management of coastal systems and resources. It also takes into account traditional, cultural and historical perspectives and conflicting interests and uses. In an ICAM programme, the exact package of management options to reduce or eliminate health hazards and risks related to recreational water uses will be driven by the nature (including frequency and severity) of the health impacts. Upon assessing the combined level of risk, three levels of response may be considered, each geared for a certain level of intervention. These three levels would provide essential services, additional actions for sensitive areas or full intervention.

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