Standards (WU)

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.


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 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).


  • 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

References Library

U.S. EPA (1996): U.S. EPA NPDES Permit Writers' Manual. Water Quality-Based Effluent Limits. Washington DC: Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). URL [Accessed: 08.04.2010].

U.S. EPA (2012): Water Quality Standards Handbook. Washington DC: Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). URL [Accessed: 22.05.2012].

GWP (Editor) (2009): Integrated Water Resources Management Toolbox. C6 REGULATORY INSTRUMENTS – Allocation and water use limits. Global Water Partnership(GWP) . URL [Accessed: 18.03.2010].

INDIA WATERPORTAL (Editor) (2010): Water Quality Channel. Pune: India Water Portal. URL [Accessed: 08.04.2010].

MILIJOSTYRELSEN (Editor) (2000): Guidelines to Statutory Order on the Licensing of Waste Water Discharges. Environmental Guidelines. Copenhagen: Miljo-og Energiministeriet. URL [Accessed: 27.04.2010].

NCEE (Editor) (2010): 3.2 Command and Control. National Center for Environmental Economics (NCEE). URL [Accessed: 13.04.2010].

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): A Typology of Tools for Building Sustainability Strategies. In: KAUFMANN-HAYOZ, R. (Editor); GUTSCHER, H. (Editor) (2001): Changing Things – Moving People. Strategies for Promoting Sustainable Development at the Local Level. Basel, 33-108.

PORTO, M.; LOBATO, F. (2004): Mechanisms of Water Management: Command & Control and Social Mechanisms (Part 1 of 2). In: REGA (Revista de Gestão de Água da América Latina) 1, 113-129.

WHO (Editor) (2008): Guidelines for Drinking-water Quality, Third Edition. Third Edition incorporating the First and Second Addenda. Geneva: World Health Organization (WHO). URL [Accessed: 23.04.2012].

Further Readings Library

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PORTO, M.; LOBATO, F. (2004): Mechanisms of Water Management: Command & Control and Social Mechanisms (Part 1 of 2). In: REGA (Revista de Gestão de Água da América Latina) 1, 113-129.

Paper describing the Mechanisms of Command & Control in combination with other SSWM tools in Brazil.

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WHO (Editor) (2011): Guidelines for Drinking-water Quality, Fourth Edition. Geneva: World Health Organization (WHO) . URL [Accessed: 08.08.2011].

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.

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EPA (Editor) (2008): Handbook for Developing Watershed Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs). Draft. Washington, DC: Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). URL [Accessed: 08.04.2010].

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.

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US EPA (Editor) (2007): Reducing Stormwater Costs through Low Impact Development (LID) Strategies and PracticesReducing Stormwater Costs through Low Impact Development (LID) Strategies and Practices. Washington, DC: Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). URL [Accessed: 08.04.2010].

Many cities today try to reduce runoff of water and pollutants from the site at which they are generated. This document explains how this can be done.

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PIDS (2002): A Law of Nature. The Command-and-Control Approach. Philippine Institute for Development Studies (PIDS). In: Economic Issue of the Day 3.

This is a short paper describing what a command-and-control approach is, and how is it imposed as part of the Philippine’s environment policy.

Case Studies Library

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US EPA (Editor) (2005): Water Quality Standards: Examples of Alternatives to Changing Long-term Designated Uses to Achieve Water Quality Goals. Washington, DC: Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Case study where states, tribes, and regions share information about regulatory tools for facilitating progress towards meeting the U.S. Clean Water Act goals, particularly in harmed water bodies.

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SRMT (Editor) (2007): Water Quality Standards. Tribe of Indians Americans. New York: Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe (SRMT), Environment Division. URL [Accessed: 08.04.2010].

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.

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CTIC (Editor) (2006): Getting Paid for Stewardship: An Agricultural Community Water Quality Trading Guide. Conservation Technology Information Center (CTIC). URL [Accessed: 22.04.2012].

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.

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US EPA (Editor) (2006): Case Studies in Tribal Water Quality Standards Programs. Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Reservation. Washington, DC: Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

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.

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MICHAEL, H.J.; BOYLE, J.K.; BOUCHARD, R. (1996): Water Quality Affects Property Prices: a Case Study of Selected Maine Lakes. Maine Agricultural and Forest Experiment Station. University of Maine.

This study shows by using cultural education programs, property owners can be convinced that they also gain economically when they take actions to protect lake water quality.

Awareness Raising Material Library

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US EPA (Editor) (2002): How Water Quality Standards Protect Tribal Waters. Washington, DC: Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

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

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US EPA (Editor) (2005): Protecting Water Quality from Agricultural Runoff. Washington, DC: Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). URL [Accessed: 08.04.2010].

Short fact sheet to raise farmers’ awareness on how their agricultural runoffs pollute water.

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US EPA (Editor) (2003): Protecting Water Quality from Urban Runoff. Washington, DC: Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). URL [Accessed: 08.04.2010].

Short fact sheet to raise awareness on how urban runoffs pollute water.

Important Weblinks [Accessed: 21.07.2010]

This web link informs ondifferent program and research activities carried by the World Health Organisation on household water treatment options along with some information on ceramic filters. [Accessed: 13.04.2010]

This website is a useful tool to find relevant information in the field of water as well as different case studies related to water standards in India. [Accessed: 08.04.2010]

This website is a focal point for providing access to information about water, sanitation and environmental health and related issues in developing and transitional countries. [Accessed: 17.08.2010]

This web page of the United States Environmental Protection Agency provides information on the nutrient management and the production of fertiliser out of human waste like for example manure or sludge. Further links to related topics are available. [Accessed: 27.07.2010]

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) official link from the European Union (EU) for sustainable and responsible business. This website contains the main EU statements towards CSR. [Accessed: 09.04.2013]

The Alliance for Water Stewardship (AWS) has launched in March 2013 the first International Water Stewardship Standard. The AWS Standard is designed to give companies and utilities a roadmap to follow towards sustainable water use, including engagement with stakeholders and others within their watershed. The Standard is designed to be applicable in all sectors and all regions.