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02 February 2018

Standards (WU)

Author/Compiled by
Aleix Ferrer Duch (seecon international gmbh)
Stefanie Keller (seecon international gmbh)
Executive Summary

Standards are requirements based on risk limits. They are often established by authorities to impose levels of pollution control by determining uniform criteria. There are three general types of standards: environmental quality standards, emission standards and product standards. In regards to sustainable sanitation and water management, the following standards are important: standards for water quality, standards in wastewater discharge and environmental standards to protect water sources. Water use or pollution permits contribute to water management and sanitation at the local level by setting allowable pollutant levels for individual water bodies, such as rivers, lakes, streams and wetlands.

Economic equity, same standards of treatment for all polluters
It complements other tools, for example economic instruments
It can increase efficiency and lower costs
Development of standards is a complex process, both scientifically and legally
Costs should be taken into account explicitly in setting standards, to win in efficiency
If there is no investment capacity, often control is simply neglected
Can be difficult to implement if control (government) is weak


A standard is an established norm or requirement. It is usually a formal document that establishes uniform criteria, methods, processes and practices. Water standards are normally imposed to unify quality, discharge or environment criteria related to polluters, regionally, nationally or internationally. Pollution is seen as the discharge by man, directly or indirectly, of substances or energy into the environment. The results of this pollution cause hazards to human health, harm to living resources and to ecosystems, damage to services or interference with other legitimate uses of water (MILIJOSTYRELSEN 2000).

There are three general types of standards:


Environmental quality standards define the allowable average concentrations over a specific time period for a given pollutant in a particular region. They define the quality that e.g. a water body should have to support a given use or set of uses. Quality standards are the legal form of regulating pollution control by the authorities and they are to be set on the basis of a quality criterion.A quality criterion forms the basis of establishing the concentration level in a aquatic or terrestrial environment above which a particular substance may be expected to cause an impact on the functioning and structure of the ecosystem. Quality criteria and standards must be on the basis of a scientific assessment of the individual substances, i.e. the fate and impact of a substance in terms of toxicity, persistence and bioaccumulation. In many cases, the quality standards will be equivalent to the quality criterion but special protective measures may imply that the quality standard for the water concerned deviates from the quality criterion (MILIJOSTYRELSEN 2000).


Product standards define the quality of a product, that is, the admissible concentration of certain substances that has to be met by any product produced and/or sold on the market – including water for recreational purposes, but also for drinking water or the water used for agriculture.


In many European countries, product standards are for instance used widely to protect water quality by prohibiting the addition of phosphates to laundry detergents. Specific requirements can be set for the use of harmful or toxic substances; they can be restricted to specific conditions, rationed, or prohibited entirely. Restrictions or rationing can also be based on more general criteria (KAUFMANN-HAYOZ et al. 2001).


Standards for water quality are just one type of standards in the water sector. Source: CONRADIN 2005

Standards for water quality are just one type of standards in the water and sanitation sector. Source: CONRADIN (2005)

Emission standards determine the maximum allowable rate of pollution output for each generic type of pollutant to protect the designated uses. Emission standards are especially significant in wastewater treatment and discharges from power plants, industry, or agriculture. Emission standards are often closely related to technological procedures and are, for this reason, frequently referred to as technology standards, even though they do not actually prescribe the use of a particular technology. There are thee divisions of technology emission standards: Best available technology, best conventional pollutant control technology and best practical technology (U.S. EPA 1996).

Main Implementation Actors and Target Groups

Regulatory bodies, i.e., the government, most often set standards. Yet, they may also be developed by individual organisations or businesses, or by groups such as trade unions or trade associations. These individual standards may become mandatory if adopted by the authorities. The standardisation process, i.e., the process of establishing limits and allowances (permits), may be given by law or may involve the formal consensus of technical experts (MILIJOSTYRELSEN 2000). The motivation to implement a standard is to find an agreement between the ones polluting the water bodies and water users, with a socially acceptable expectation of the risk of degradation (PORTO et al. 2004).

Planning and Implementing Standards on a Local Level

Standards are often determined by national authorities and based on the imposition of levels of pollution control. When agencies responsible for the implementation process are not involved, decisions tend to become more bureaucratic, justifying that the public power treats all agents evenly. This may lead to the fact that local differences are not taken into account (PORTO et al. 2004). However, standards should be adjusted to local conditions.

When setting a standard, the following aspects must be considered (MILIJOSTYRELSEN 2000).


  • The maximum concentration of the substance permissible in the discharge
  • The average concentration permissible in the discharge during one or more specified periods
  • The maximum quantity of the substance permissible in the discharge during one or more specified periods
  • Internal control measures


Things to Consider Before Applying Standards

The numerical values assigned to the standards have to be established based on water standards criteria, so as to have a scientific foundation and ensure appropriate levels of safety for the designated uses.

It is essential that standards are established in a flexible and decentralised form, precisely to be able to serve local specificity (PORTO et al. 2004).

By focusing only on environmental improvement, standards are likely to be set at too ambitious levels. Then, too large costs may arise to achieve improvements in environmental quality that are less than they cost. Water quality standards for polluters should be set as a basis for their discharge. It is important to check if there are national guidelines which facilitate a general understanding of the concept of quality standards, and how to apply them.

This type of regulation is widely used not only with water but also in air policies. Experience shows, however, that such environmental quality standards are repeatedly infringed. While the standards may indicate that a level of concentration of pollutants has been exceeded, no immediate action is demanded unless a responsible party can clearly be identified – which may sometimes be challenging. If a responsible party can be identified (such as in a case of water pollution that is caused by the release of pollutant substances by an industrial company), it must face the sanctions as defined by law (KAUFMANN-HAYOZ et al. 2001).

Standards as a Base for Permits

Quality standards are binding and very much related with the administration of discharge permits (MILIJOSTYRELSEN 2000). Standards are the base to create permits, and it is by monitoring the permits implementation that one also evaluates progresses achieved (WHO 2008).

Permit is the act of giving a formal, usually written, authorisation to use (pollute) a certain amount of a resource, e.g. water. Based on the developed standards, these authorisations can be fiscally developed.

These permits (authorisations) can also be economic instruments: tradable permits are used convened with economic instruments, and are increasingly used for implementing environmental and natural resources management policies in the broader framework for sustainable development strategies. They provide the flexibility required to achieve the best individual allocation of rights through decentralised transfers guided by the intensity of demand (OECD 2002). See also tradable permits.

Typical Examples

Water quality includes the physical, chemical and biological characteristics of water. Water quality standards are most frequently used with reference to a set of standards against which compliance can be assessed. The most common standards relate to drinking water, safety of human contact, and for health of ecosystems. An understanding of the various factors influencing water quality is thus very important as human health is largely dependent on the quality of water available (INDIA WATERPORTAL 2010)

A typical example from the USA, with positive but also negative effects, is the Clean Water Act. This is a very ambitious programme, based almost exclusively on the command and control methodology. It created a centralised programme in the state governments, with extremely ambitious and restrictive goals. It foresaw the elimination of all sources of pollution and two quality objectives towards fishing and primary contact recreation. Partly achieved very good results, but today 35% of the rivers monitored still do not fulfil the water quality objectives, because of the low efficiency in the control of pollution and difficulties in controlling non point sources. Moreover, the US government invested many billions of dollars (PORTO et al. 2004).


Standards contribute to easier management, better use and increased longevity of water management and sanitation systems. They look at what would need to be done, but they do not say how to do it.

It is important to choose the right standards and adapt them to each local situation. Local standards should be included within the framework of the national standards (see also political and legal framework). Taking the (higher) standards of another entity can be a basis to do advocacy.

All costs should be taken into account explicitly in setting standards, if not, standards loose in efficiency (NCEE 2010). Standards should not be too restrictive standards — this could raise costs (for control, but also for the businesses involved) and could be a burden to society. Standards should be applied within a mixed system combining different measures since there is no “one-size-fits-all”-instrument (GWP 2009).

Library references

A Typology of Tools for Building Sustainability Strategies

Since the 1980s, the Swiss federal government has actively pursued a policy to reduce the emission of pollutants from heating systems. The program bases upon three measures, which are regulatory in nature: emission thresholds, systems inspections with permits and heating controls.

KAUFMANN-HAYOZ, R. ; BAETTIG, C. ; BRUPPACHER, S. ; DEFILA, R. ; DI GIULIO, A. ; FLURY-KLEUBER, P. ; FRIEDERICH, U. ; GARBELY, M. ; JAEGGI, C. ; JEGEN, M. ; MOSLER, H.J. ; MUELLER, A. ; NORTH, N. ; ULLI-BEER, S. ; WICHTERMANN, J. ; (2001): KAUFMANN-HAYOZ, R. ; GUTSCHER, H. (2001): Changing Things – Moving People. Strategies for Promoting Sustainable Development at the Local Level. Basel: ,33-108 .

Guidelines for Drinking-water Quality, Third Edition

This volume of the Guidelines for Drinking-water Quality explains requirements to ensure drinking-water safety, including minimum procedures and specific guideline values, and how those requirements are intended to be used. The volume also describes the approaches used in deriving the guidelines, including guideline values. It includes fact sheets on significant microbial and chemical hazards.

WHO (2008): Third Edition incorporating the First and Second Addenda. Geneva: World Health Organization (WHO) URL [Accessed: 23.04.2012]
Further Readings

Guidelines for Drinking-water Quality, Fourth Edition

This volume of the Guidelines for Drinking-water Quality explains requirements to ensure drinking-water safety, including minimum procedures and specific guideline values, and how those requirements are intended to be used. The volume also describes the approaches used in deriving the guidelines, including guideline values. It includes fact sheets on significant microbial and chemical hazards.

WHO (2011): Geneva: World Health Organization (WHO) URL [Accessed: 08.08.2011]

Handbook for Developing Watershed Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs). Draft

This document provides technical information to TMDL practitioners who are familiar with the relevant technical approaches and legal requirements pertaining to developing TMDLs and refers to statutory and regulatory provisions that contain legally binding requirements.

EPA (2008): Washington, DC: Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) URL [Accessed: 08.04.2010]
Case Studies

Water Quality Standards. Tribe of Indians Americans

This is an extended case study. The purpose of these water quality standards is to facilitate sovereign self-determination and the restoration and preservation of traditional hunting, fishing, gathering and cultural uses in, on and around tribal surface waters.

SRMT (2007): New York: Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe (SRMT), Environment Division URL [Accessed: 08.04.2010]

Getting Paid for Stewardship: An Agricultural Community Water Quality Trading Guide

This is a guide to help the agricultural advisors understand that water quality is not only useful to improve their production and to take care of the environment, but also to trade. Producers could earn even more for, aiming towards the best practical technology.

CTIC (2006): Conservation Technology Information Center (CTIC) URL [Accessed: 22.04.2012]

Case Studies in Tribal Water Quality Standards Programs. Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Reservation

This is summary of a case study. The tribes wish to maintain the integrity of their streams and the high quality of Flathead Lake, the largest natural freshwater lake in the western United States. Common pollutants threaten the quality of these waters. The tribes have established a water quality standards program to preserve the high quality waters and restore those that have been degraded.

US EPA (2006): Washington, DC: Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
Awareness Raising Material

How Water Quality Standards Protect Tribal Waters

Short factsheet to sensitise USA tribal communities on how they can get help to implement water quality standards in their region.

US EPA (2002): Washington, DC: Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)

Alternative Versions to