Water Sanitation Health

WHO issues revised drinking-water guidelines to prevent waterborne disease

Each year, two million people die from waterborne diseases and billions more suffer illness – most are children under five. But much of this ill-health and suffering are preventable. People drink unsafe or contaminated water, even though steps to prevent a major part of this contamination lie within our reach and means.

To address this situation the revised WHO Guidelines for Drinking-water Quality released today calls on governments to strengthen their management of drinking-water quality by adopting a "Water Safety Planning" approach. When implemented by individual countries this approach can yield significant and sustainable improvements in public health. It requires a paradigm shift in drinking-water management for many countries. The Guidelines compel water suppliers to systematically assess the potential risk of contaminants to enter water, from the catchment to the consumer, take action based on their findings, and document the process.

“Countries have an opportunity to make substantial public health progress by setting and applying effective and appropriate standards for ensuring safe water," said Dr Maria Neira, WHO Director for Public Health and Environment. "Shifting to a primary prevention approach is more effective, costs less, and gives us the flexibility to deal with new pressures threatening water safety such as climate change, population growth, and urbanization."

The Guidelines are regarded globally as the most authoritative framework on drinking-water quality and often form the basis for national laws and regulations.

In addition to highlighting common challenges in providing safe and clean water, the Guidelines map out new solutions. For the first time, comprehensive good practice recommendations are provided for all levels, from household rainwater harvesting and safe storage through to policy advice on bulk water supply and the implications of climate change.

The new Guidelines also include recommendations on:

  • drinking-water safety, including minimum procedures, specific guideline values and how these should be used;
  • microbial hazards, which continue to be the primary concern in both developing and developed countries;
  • climate change, which results in changing water temperature and rainfall patterns, severe and prolonged drought or increased flooding, and its implications for water quality and water scarcity, recognizing the importance of managing these impacts as part of water management strategies;
  • chemical contaminants in drinking-water, including information on chemicals not considered previously such as pesticides used for disease vector control in stored drinking-water;
  • key chemicals responsible for large-scale health effects through drinking-water exposure, including arsenic, fluoride and lead, and chemicals of public concern such as nitrate, selenium, uranium and disinfection-by-products.

"If we look at the most recent waterborne disease outbreaks, both in developing and developed countries, it is clear that most of these could have been prevented through the proactive implementation of Water Safety Plans”, said Robert Bos, WHO Coordinator for Water, Sanitation, Hygiene and Health.

Guidelines for Drinking-water Quality includes hundreds of risk assessments on specific waterborne hazards and have been updated based on the latest scientific evidence. For the first time this also includes specific guidance on emerging contaminants of concern in drinking-water. Such guidance is crucial in addressing widespread concerns over potential human health risks arising from traces of pharmaceuticals detected in drinking-water, for example.

“The provision of safe drinking water is a key pillar of public health. Many countries worldwide, including Singapore, adopt the WHO Guidelines for Drinking-water Quality as the basis for regulation and setting standards for drinking water supply. Singapore is pleased to have contributed to the development of the new Edition of the Guidelines through partnering with WHO in the joint promotion of safe management of drinking water globally since 2007.

The new Guidelines’ emphasis on a preventive and holistic approach in the safe management of drinking water quality is timely in light of the emerging challenges that the world faces. We are very pleased that Singapore is hosting the launch of the new Edition of the Guidelines,” said Mr Khoo Teng Chye, Chief Executive of PUB, Singapore’s national water agency.

The Guidelines were launched at the Singapore International Water Week (4-8 July 2011), the global platform for water solutions that brings together policy-makers, industry leaders, experts and practitioners to address challenges, showcase new technologies, discover opportunities and celebrate achievements in the water arena.


For further information and interviews, please contact:

Geneva

Ms Nada Osseiran, Communications Officer, Public Health and Environment, WHO, Geneva
Tel. +41 22 791 4475, Mobile +41 79 445 1624, Email: osseirann@who.int

Singapore

Mr Bruce Gordon, Technical Officer, Water, Sanitation, Hygiene and Health, WHO, Geneva
Tel: +41 79 221 7856, Email: gordonb@who.int

Mr Chee-Keong Chew, Technical Officer, Water, Sanitation, Hygiene and Health, WHO, Geneva
Tel: +65 8335 5352, Email: chewc@who.int

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