Comparison of Microbiological Water Quality Standards for Swimming Beaches

Subject: Environment
Pages: 45
Words: 12806
Reading time:
47 min
Study level: College
Leung Min Pong Calvin 2007923873
Figure. Leung Min Pong Calvin 2007923873


Water quality is a contentious issue in Hong Kong. Hong Kong island is densely populated and heavily commercialized. The water use and the need to flush waste water or sewage from the populated areas of the population cause the pollution of the local waters, the same water that is a source of drinking water, food and recreation for the population. The Environmental Protection Department of Hong Kong was established with a mandate, among others, to protect Hong Kong’s water resources and create water quality standards to ensure that Hong Kong’s waters remain viable for their intended uses. One of these uses is recreational bathing. There are many beaches available for bathing in Hong Kong. However, many of these are closed at various times of the year because of pollution of the water. Pollution exists at tolerable levels for most of the year but may at times rise due to man-made or natural factors that would make swimming on a beach a dangerous proposition. This dissertation dwells upon the methods of water quality testing used in Hong Kong. This paper also covers Hong Kong’s Water Quality Standards and extensively covers the evolution and development of the Water Quality Standards in use today. There is an extensive discussion of what Water Quality Standards are in other countries, particularly Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation member states and the European Union. Finally it attempts to find ways to improve the existing Water Quality regime and the overall water quality in Hong Kong.


Hong Kong locates at the mouth of the Pearl River with a total land area of 1,104 km2 and a sea area of 1651 km2. Its topography is filled with extensive hill sides, long shore lines and a vast collection of beautiful beaches. As part of the sub-tropics, Hong Kong has a long, humid summer and a torrential five-month-long rainy season which runs from May to September. This peculiar weather pattern also runs side by side with the beach season and this has a negative effect on beach water quality. The last twenty years have seen Hong Kong’s population balloon from 5.5 million in 1988 to 7 million in 2008. The increased population comes with increased business, commercial and other activities that come with population growth such as intensified urban development. This development comes at the expense of the beach hinterlands and has created further stress for the already overloaded drainage and sewage networks of Hong Kong. Pollution is becoming a real threat to the maritime water environment.

As part of its efforts to protect and enhance the water quality of recreational beaches in Hong Kong, The Hong Kong Environmental Protection Department (EPD) has implemented a comprehensive water monitoring program since its establishment in 1986. The EPD has also taken measures to curb pollution on the beaches by providing sewage infrastructure, and by enacting and enforcing water pollution legislation. Sewage treatment infrastructure was upgraded and the public sewage system was extended to 93% of the population. As a result of this initiative the overall beach water quality has shown a marked improvement over the past two decades.

Hong Kong is a popular tourist spot for both Chinese and foreign tourists who are drawn to Hong Kong by the prospect of shopping, beaches and other attractions. In 2006 alone Hong Kong received over 23 million tourists. In fact, Hong Kong beaches gather over eight million visitors during the beach season. They are popular tourist attractions as well as regular recreation and sports venue for local residents.

This paper will cover Hong Kong’s experience in monitoring beach water quality and compare it to the national standards of China and the water quality standards of other countries. This paper will also suggest methods of improving beach water quality.


Indicator organism used for Water Quality Testing

Pervasive testing of the water quality for all pathogens is often time-consuming and inefficient. Instead of testing for all bacteria, it is sufficient to test for one type of bacteria and use the level of this bacterium in the water to judge the fitness of the water to be used for a given purpose. Naturally, the tolerance for contaminants is different depending on what classification the water belongs to. The two most commonly tested bacteria are E. coli and Enterococcus.

 E. Coli testing
Figure 1 E. Coli testing

E. coli

Escherichia coli, better known as E. coli, is a Gram-negative bacterium that can often be found in the lower intestine of warm-blooded animals. Theodor Esherich, a German pediatrician and bacteriologist is credited with the discovery of this organism in 1885 (Feng, 2007). It has the ability to survive for a moderate period outside of a living body. Therefore, it makes an ideal indicator to test environmental samples for fecal contamination (Feng, 2007).

E. coli are Gram-negative, facultative anaerobic and non-sporulating. The Cells are typically rod-shaped and are about 2 micrometers long and 0.5 micrometers in diameter, with an average cell volume of 0.6 – 0.7 μm3 (Kubitschek, 1990). E. coli can survive on a wide variety of media. As an anaerobic bacteria it uses acid fermentation to survive and this process requires the levels of hydrogen to be low and thus it can survive beside hydrogen-consuming organisms such as methanogens.


Enterococcus is a genus of lactic acid bacteria of the phylum Firmicutes. Members of this genus were classified as Group D Streptococcus until 1984 when DNA analysis revealed that a separate genus classification was more appropriate (KH Schleifer et al. 1984). Enterococci is also a Gram-positive cocci that occurs in pairs or short chains. They are often confused with Streptococci because of their physical characteristics. Enterococci are facultative anaerobic organisms this means they do not require oxygen for metabolism, but can survive in oxygen-rich environments (VA Fischetti et al. 2000).

Enterococcus is a known cause of the following diseases urinary tract infections, bacteremia, bacterial endocarditis, diverticulitis, and meningitis (Ryan et al., 2004). Therefore, there is a very low acceptable level of contamination for bodies of water. In Hawaii, with its very low tolerance even by United States Beach Water Quality Standards, the limit for beach water is just 7 CFU (colony-forming unit) per 100 ml of water. Beyond this level the state of Hawaii will post warnings for people to stay out of the water. (Hawaii State Department of Health, 2009) In 2004, Enterococcus replaced fecal coliform as the new United States Federal Standard for water quality at public beaches. It is believed to provide a higher correlation than fecal coliform (Jin, 2004).

Water Testing Methodology

The following method of water testing is used in Hong Kong while minor aspects of the methodology may be changed in other countries. Besides, the range of acceptable parameters may be different in the same methodology and types of observations are used in other countries.

Water Sampling

In the process of water quality monitoring of bathing beaches, samples are collected three times a month at intervals that vary from three to fourteen days from March to October. Over the course of the rest of the year samples are collected less frequently at a rate of about once per month. There are four beaches that are open year-round to swimmers, and these are monitored at least thrice monthly year-round.

If and when there is a sudden upsurge in the level of bacteria in a beach, monitoring frequency is intensified, and the Environmental Protection Department immediately carries out an in-depth investigation and takes rapid action to prevent further pollution. Once the bacteria level returns to normal, the usual level of sampling frequency is resumed.

During a beach monitoring, the water samples are collected at one or two previously determined sampling points based on the size of the beach being sampled. These samples are taken at areas that are 1 meter deep and the water is collected from a depth of about 0.3 meters below the surface of the water. This sampling procedure is the prescribed method found in the World Health Organization (WHO) Guidelines for Safe Recreational Water Environments (WHO 2003), the same as that used by other countries (Bartram, 2000). Other prescriptions which use a similar sampling method are the EC Bathing Water Directives of 1976 (EC 1976) and the updated EC Bathing Water Directives of 2006 (EC 2006). Samples of water are also collected from the potential pollution sources for the beach such as nearby streams or storm water outlets. These additional data are especially useful for the identification of the causes of pollution when there is an unusually high bacteria count detected in the beach water samples.

Testing Parameters

EPD staff in the field record observations which may impact the quality of the water. Observations include the local sea and weather conditions, number of bathers and quantity of rubbish found on the beach. Water temperature and dissolved oxygen concentration are other variables also recorded when a team makes its observations. These measures are taken using portable meters. The collected water samples are tested for a number of variables in the laboratory. Among these factors are E. coli, fecal coliforms, pH, salinity and turbidity.

Field and laboratory data are collected with the meteorological data to assess the beach water quality. The reason why meteorological data is also to be collected is that tides, wind, rainfall, sunlight, water temperature, salinity and turbidity all can influence the water quality.

The recent trend is to reduce the number of laboratory tests done for routine beach monitoring. One example of this is the fact that the EC Bathing Water Directive issued in 1976 required the observation of 19 parameters. These nineteen parameters are broken down into five microbial parameters, namely total coliforms, fecal coliforms, enteroviruses, fecal streptococci and Salmonella, and fourteen physiochemical parameters which include color, mineral oils, surface-active substances, phenols, heavy metals, nitrates, phosphates, cyanides, and ammonia. The more modern EC directive of 2006 lays down only two bacteriological indicators, E. coli and intestinal enterococci, to be analyzed plus field observations. Therefore, EPD standards, which closely follow those of EC directive 2006, are in line with international standards.

Comparison of microbiological recreational water quality standards

Recreational Water Quality Criteria are varied all over the world. For various reasons they are different for different countries. For example, economic considerations may prevent a third-world country from imposing Water Quality restrictions as exacting as those of a First world country. This section will compare the existing recreational water quality criteria in the United States, Hong Kong, Australia, Europe and the Philippines. Also to be reviewed is the World Health Organization standard for water quality.

Recreational Water Quality Criteria is designed to protect swimmers from illness caused by exposure to pathogens in recreational waters. In most cases, existing criteria are very old and are not always responsive to new changes in technology. While this is the norm, new information and technology can spurn new ways of measuring water criteria. Resistance may be expected against these new norms but improved standards will be more beneficial overall.

Hong Kong

Swimming is a popular past-time in Hong Kong. Proximity to urban and industrial centers may cause some beaches to be unsuitable for swimming.
Figure 2. Swimming is a popular past-time in Hong Kong. Proximity to urban and industrial centers may cause some beaches to be unsuitable for swimming.

Monitoring Program

The Hong Kong Environmental Protection Department has developed a comprehensive program to monitor the water quality of swimming beaches. It made these standards immediately upon its formation in 1986 according to its mandate. The program was designed to help identify beaches that required improvement and assess the effectiveness of pollution control measures implemented. In developing the beach water quality monitoring program, the Environmental Protection Department undertook a series of scientific studies and made periodic reviews to improve its efficiency in safeguarding the health of bathers (EPD 2006).

There are currently, forty-one bathing beaches managed by the Government that are under strict monitoring under the beach monitoring program. While a majority of beaches are located in close proximity to urban centers, there are a rare few that are accessible using boat or after a difficult hike across the hills only. It is these beaches that are equipped with changing facilities, toilets, showers and shark nets. They are also manned by lifeguards and are open to the public for swimming.

Water Sampling

In the process of water quality monitoring of bathing beaches, samples are collected three times a month at intervals that vary from three to fourteen days from March to October. Over the course of the rest of the year samples are collected less frequently at a rate of about once per month. There are four beaches that are open year-round to swimmers, and these are monitored at least thrice monthly year-round.

If and when there is a sudden upsurge in the level of bacteria in a beach, monitoring frequency is intensified, and the Environmental Protection Department immediately carries out a in-depth investigation and takes rapid action to prevent further pollution. Once the bacteria level returns to normal, the usual level of sampling frequency is resumed.

 This sewage treatment plant at Stonecutter’s island helps reduce pollution dumped into Victoria bay.
Figure 3. This sewage treatment plant at Stonecutter’s island helps reduce pollution dumped into Victoria bay.

During a beach monitoring, the water samples are collated at one or two previously determined sampling points based on the size of the beach being sampled. These samples are taken at areas that are 1 meter deep and the water is collected from a depth of about 0.3 meters below the surface of the water. This sampling procedure is not unlike that used by other countries (Bartram, 2000) and is the prescribed method found in the World Health Organization (WHO) Guidelines for Safe Recreational Water Environments (WHO 2003). Other prescriptions which use a similar sampling method are the EC Bathing Water Directives of 1976 (EC 1976) and the updated EC Bathing Water Directives of 2006 (EC 2006). Samples of water are also collected from the potential pollution sources for the beach such as nearby streams or storm water outlets. These additional data are especially useful for the identification of the causes of pollution when there is an unusually high bacteria count detected in the beach water samples.

Testing Parameters

Environmental Protection Department Staff in the field record observations which may impact the quality of the water. Observations such as the local sea and weather conditions, number of bathers and quantity of rubbish found on the beach. Water temperature and dissolved oxygen concentration are other variables also recorded when a team makes its observations. These measures are taken using a handheld meter. The collected water samples are tested for a number of variables in the laboratory. Among these factors are E. coli, faecal coliforms, PH, Salinity and turbidity.

Field and Laboratory date are collated with the meteorological data to assess the beach water quality. The reason meteorological is also factored in is because tides, wind, rainfall, sunlight, water temperature, salinity and turbidity all influence the water quality.

The recent trend is to reduce the number of laboratory tests done for routine beach monitoring. One example of this is the fact that the EC Bathing Water Directive issued in 1976 required the observation of 19 parameters. This nineteen is broken down into five microbe parameters namely, total coliforms, fecal coliforms, enteroviruses, fecal streptococci and Salmonella and fourteen physiochemical parameters which include, color, mineral oils, surface-active substances, phenols, heavy metals, nitrates, phosphates, cyanides, and ammonia). By comparison the more modern EC directive of 2006 lay down only two bacteriological indicators, E. Coli and intestinal enterococci, to be analyzed plus field observations. There for Environmental Protection Department standards, which closely follow those of EC directive 2006, are in line with international standards.

 HK Water Quality Grading
Table 1: HK Water Quality Grading

Water Quality Objective Development

Water Quality Objective (WQOs) was developed in Hong Kong to protect beneficial uses of water such as swimming and bathing. At the time the beach monitoring program was first developed, an interim WQO for bathing beaches was used. The WQO specified that the running median of E. coli counts of the five most recent samples taken at an interval of between three and fourteen days during the beach season should in no case exceed 1000 per 100 mL. This arbitrary value was based on the WHO recommendation of 1977 (WHO 1977) due to the absence of any locally established epidemiological data.

Recreational water quality criterion is defined as “a quantifiable relationship between the density of an indicator in the water and the potential human risks involved in the water’s recreational use” (Cabelli, 1983). It is likewise recognized that indicator organisms for regular beach monitoring should be chosen with consideration for local factors, such as climate, disease pattern, local immunity, population behaviors and exposure patterns and expertise of local laboratories (US EPA 1986). With due regard to the limits of the interim WQO and taking into consideration the World Health Organization’s recommendations, the Environmental Protection Department conducted a series of large-scale local epidemiological studies during the 1980s and early 1990s. These studies were a first of their kind in Asia. They were quantitative where relationships between swimming-associated illness rates and degree of pollution were established.

The first set of these epidemiological studies on recreational water quality was done between 1986 and 1987. These were based on interviews with beach-goers at ten recreational beaches followed by telephone interviews to check on the possible development of illnesses. Concurrently intensive testing was undertaken with regard to the microbiological quality of beach waters. Over the course of the one-year study some 33,000 beach-goers were interviewed and a total of nine microbial indices were tested including fecal coliforms, E. coli, Klebsiella spp., fecal streptococcus, enterococci, staphylococci, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, total fungi and Candida albicans. The results revealed that the general symptom rates of gastrointestinal, ear, eye, skin, respiratory, fever and total illness were somewhat higher among swimmers than -non-swimmers. This would indicate that swimming was somehow related to increased illness. The study also showed that E. coli was quite possibly the best indicator of the potential health risks associated with swimming at Hong Kong beaches. There was a very high correlation between swimming-associated gastroenteritis and skin symptom rates with E.coli levels as opposed to other bacteriological indices. A quantitative relationship was thus developed between E. coli densities and the swimming-associated symptoms. An average E. coli density of 180 per 100mL, was found to correspond to a minor illness rate of 10 in 1000 swimmers and was established as the threshold which separated “relatively unpolluted” from “barely acceptable” beaches.

The second series of epidemiological studies were conducted in 1992. It involved interviewing 25,000 beach-goers regarding the health effects of exposure to beach water and expanding the earlier studies to the testing of pathogenic bacteria and viruses. The new study also included studying the beach water samples for physicochemical parameters and a range of organisms namely the three indicator bacteria: E. coli, fecal coliforms and staphylococci and seven pathogenic bacteria: Aeromonas spp., Clostridium perfringens, Vibrio cholerae, V. parahaemolyticus, V. vulnificus, Salmonella spp. and Shigella spp. Also involved was the collection and testing of clinical specimens from those who reported illness after swimming. Stool samples from those that showed gastrointestinal symptoms were also analyzed for possible rotavirus and bacteria. Throat swabs from those with respiratory symptoms were analyzed for viruses like influenza virus types A and B; parainfluenza virus types 1, 2, and 3; respiratory syncytial virus and adenovirus. The study revealed the conclusion that swimmers were considerably more likely to exhibit eye, skin, and respiratory symptoms than were non-swimmers. There was a direct correlation obtained between gastrointestinal symptoms and some pathogenic bacteria in beach water. Furthermore, turbidity in beach water was found to be directly linked with gastrointestinal symptoms.

The Environmental Protection Department Studies have been entered into a comprehensive review of the epidemiological studies on health effects from exposure to recreational water conducted by the World Health Organization (A Prüss 1998.), because the studies use statistically significant large population sizes. They have also scientifically compared the illness rates between swimmers and non-swimmers, and swimming in polluted waters as against swimming in relatively unpolluted water based on the results of the epidemiological studies, the Environmental Protection Department developed its current WQO for bathing water in Hong Kong in 1992 and developed the target for managing recreational beach water quality. The new WQO mandates that the level of E. coli in the recreational beach water should not exceed 180 per 100mL computed as the geometric mean of all the samples collected during the bathing seasons of March to October.

Beach rating system

Based on the WQO and the results of the related studies the Environmental Protection Department developed a dual beach rating system which is comprised of an annual ranking and grading. This was established to indicate the annual and the current beach water quality. The system has since evolved into its current form over time and is largely based on the estimated human health risks. The annual ranking segregates the beaches into Good, Fair, Poor, and Very Poor beaches. And is computed based on the geometric mean of the E. Coli concentrations of all the monitoring samples collected during the bathing season. These divisions are used to indicate the overall water quality of the beach in the year. The beach grading meanwhile is calculated by using the running geometric mean of the last five sampling occasions and will be particularly useful to keep the public well informed about the current water quality.

In order to minimize the peril of a sudden deterioration of the beach water quality due to a malfunction in a nearby wastewater treatment facility, heavy rainfall or other sources of pollution that does not originate from the beach itself, the grading system also has a triggering limit of 1,600 E. coli counts per 100 mL which exists in addition to the running geometric mean. An example of this would be if a situation arose where the E. coli concentration exceeds the triggering limit, the beach would automatically be downgraded to “Grade 4” or Very poor irrespective of the running geometric mean of the E. coli counts. A Grade 4 rating will immediately result in the closure of the beach for swimming purposes and activate the pollution investigation and control procedures. Simultaneously, the monitoring frequency is greatly intensified until the bacterial concentration returns to the acceptable norms.

Comparison of Beach rankings from 1986 - 2006
Figure 4. Comparison of Beach rankings from 1986 – 2006
 Distribution of rankings of Hong Kong’s beaches from 1986 to 2006: this figure shows how HK beaches have shown some improvement over the past 20 years.
Figure 5. Distribution of rankings of Hong Kong’s beaches from 1986 to 2006: this figure shows how HK beaches have shown some improvement over the past 20 years.

Information dissemination at the Beach

The Environmental Protection Department has continued to use the afore-mentioned dual rating system to inform beach managers, sewage authorities and the general public about recreational beach water quality. The information that the Environmental Protection Department disseminates serves as the basis upon which beach managers are to decide whether to open or close a beach and enables the public at large to make an informed choice on whether or not to go swimming.

Environmental Protection Department’s beach water quality information is widely disseminated regularly via multimedia such as daily updates of its website, weekly press releases and even a telephone hotline on recreational beach water quality. Water quality, weather, sea conditions and other useful information are also posted on the notice boards at the beaches for the users. Finally, the Environmental Protection Department produces an annual report on beach water quality for beach users which is available on its website.

Analysis methods for E. coli in Hong Kong Waters

Many culture media and methods are available for the measurement of E. coli bacteria. However, it has been recommended that it would not be appropriate to adopt methods that were developed in temperate countries for enumerating E. coli in tropical and sub-tropical environments without first studying their suitability (WHS Cheung 1991). For example, the ratio of non-E.coli fecal coliforms and E. coli in subtropical and in temperate waters could be different and this would likewise create a variance in the result of the tests. The Environmental Protection Department, in the past, used the membrane filtration method for measuring E. coli bacteria in beach water. The culture medium used at the time was a modified version of the membrane lauryl fsulfate (mLS) which was the medium developed in the United Kingdom (Stanfield G, 1981). An in-situ urease test was added to differentiate E. coli colonies from the non-E. coli colonies. Although this form of testing was adequate, it was time-consuming, as it required three days to complete, and thus created delays in the reporting of the results.

o discover a better or more efficient method for E. Coli measurement, the Environmental Protection Department compared many culture media and conducted extensive trials (BSW Ho 1997). It was concluded that the CHROmagar Liquid E. coli – Coliform (CLECC) medium yielded the best results. It was more specific, sensitive and gave distinctly identifiable colonies. The incubation period was also shortened and the results could be obtained in 18 to 24 hours instead of the previous 72. The Environmental Protection Department has, since 1997, adopted the CLEEC medium in place of the mLS medium.

Preparations for a new bathing season

In preparation for a new bathing season, the Environmental Protection Department would review the samples of locations at each beach including potential pollution sources. Based on these monitoring findings as well as field observations of the last few bathing seasons it would advise beach managers on whether a beach should be closed or opened for the coming season. In order to insure that the first grading of the beaches would accurately prove the most recent water quality, site inspections and additional samplings are made prior to the start of the bathing season.

Rainfall advisory

Rainfall has a generally negative impact on beach water quality, and heightened levels of bacteria are often detected during and after heavy rainfall. The Environmental Protection Department conducted studies to asses the effects of rainfall and surface run-off on the beaches of Hong Kong and identified the sources of pollution at individual beaches (EPD 2000). The study concluded that beach water quality generally returned to normal within three days after a heavy downpour. Hong Kong’s beaches could generally be grouped into three broad categories with respect to the effect of rainfall. The first category is those beaches that are only slightly affected by rainfall. In other words, those beaches that do not have any major pollution sources and show only a slight elevation in bacterial levels during and after rain with a short recovery period of only 24 hours or less. The second category is the beaches which are moderately susceptible to rainfall, with a post rainfall recovery period of between 24 to 48 hours. Finally the third category is the beaches which are highly susceptible to rainfall, with a rainfall recovery period of over 48 hours. Approximately one-third of Hong Kong’s beaches belong to the first category, half of the beaches are in the third category while the rest are in the second category. The public is warned of the possible negative effects of rainfall on the beach water quality via the Environmental Protection Department website and weekly press releases. Rainfall advisory panels are also erected at all the recreational beaches to advise the public against swimming during or up to three days after a heavy rainfall.

Beach contamination response plan

To guarantee that beach pollution incidents are tackled quickly and effectively, the Environmental Protection Department has created a “Beach Pollution Response Plan” which is essentially an outline of the procedures and response actions to be undertaken by various government departments to deal with beach pollution incidents. Under this response plan, a catchment plan, which has the location of all potential pollution sources in the beach periphery has been prepared for each of the beaches. These catchment plans are designed to quickly facilitate the quick identification of pollution sources for investigation and remedial actions. The plan also includes a useful checklist for making an informed decision on the question of the beach being suitable for swimming in the event of a sewage pollution incident.

Study of alternative indicators

There are many bacterial indicators of fecal contamination which are used internationally. E. coli and enterococci are the most commonly used ones and are recommended for routine monitoring of recreational waters. The Environmental Protection Department reviews the beach monitoring program on a periodic basis with a view towards improving its efficiency and keeping up with the international standards (EPD 2001). Studies have been conducted to expose the possibility of using alternative faecal indicators, indicators such as faecal streptococci, enterococci, and Clostridium perfringens instead of E. coli (EPD 2002). There was a study conducted during the beach season of 2001 where samples were collected from seventeen beaches three times a month and these samples were tested for four organisms. E. coli was found to be the most abundant pathogens, the second most abundant was faecal streptococci, then enterococci and finally Clostridium perfringen. All of these bacteria have a strong positive correlation to E. coli. The study also concluded that the level of enterococci was the lowest and over half the beaches sampled had less than 10 enterococci counts per 100mL. E. coli had the highest density and the widest distribution. It was found that E. coli was highly prevalent and more common compared to the enterococci. As a result of this 2001 study it was determined that E. coli remained the most useful bacterial indicator in Hong Kong waters.

At the end of the day the goal is for beautiful beaches that are wonderful to behold and conductive to recreational swimming
Figure 6. At the end of the day the goal is for beautiful beaches that are wonderful to behold and conductive to recreational swimming

Other Countries and Organizations

European Union

The European Union has been successful in the implementation of the Bathing Water Quality Directives (ECC 76/160) and maintaining high-quality bathing waters. The adoption of the new Bathing Water directive in 2006 (EC 2006) has introduced new principles for the management of bathing waters (EC 2006. Member states are now challenged to meet the new requirements. In the past there has been some success in improving water quality as it was shown that from 1992 to 2004 the water quality of coastal zones has shown marked improvement. The new Bathing Water directive aims to raise the standards for the management of bathing waters even higher.

Safe bathing water is an essential factor in the preservation of public health. Poor quality recreation waters have been showing to be a leading cause in the outbreaks of waterborne illnesses involving many tourists and local citizens (Nichols G 2006). Factors that may affect the quality of bathing water may include inadequate sewage treatment and agricultural pollution which will result in microbial and chemical contamination and eutrophication. There is some considerable epidemiological evidence that suggests that contact with recreational waters is associated with illnesses such as gastrointestinal problems. However, outbreak data would suggest that there is a risk of even more severe illnesses such as Shigella sonneri, Escherichia coli O157 infection, protozoan parasites and enteric viruses (Pruss, 1998). A recent assessment of the global burden of disease attributable to gastroenteric infections arising from unsafe recreational marine water environments has estimated it as 66 000 disability-adjusted life-years (DALYs) (Shuval, 2003).

There are population groups that may be at a higher risk of disease including young people and tourists who may not have the requisite immunity that local residents might have against locally occurring endemic diseases. Children also show a tendency to play for longer periods in recreational waters than adults and are thus more likely to swallow water that may contain pathogens. Given these numerous reasons the European Union saw fit to establish a more stringent level of Water Quality Standards

It was in the 2004 Fourth Ministerial Conference on Environmental Health that the Children’s Environmental and Health Action plan or (CEHAPE) was discussed. It includes four regional priority goals to reduce the burned of environment-related diseases in children. One of these goals is to prevent and significantly reduce morbidity and mortality arising from gastrointestinal disorders and other health effects by ensuring that adequate measures are taken to improve access to safe and affordable water and adequate sanitation for all children. Directive 76/160/EEC on Bathing Water Quality defined quality criteria for bathing waters and obliged the member states to monitor bathing sites. This has been replaced by Directive 2006/7/EC, which sets new standards for the monitoring and management of bathing waters and for providing relevant information to the public, taking into account the scientific evidence of recent years. The requirements of the Bathing Water Directive are coherent with Water Framework Directive 2000/60/EC (EC 2000). This directive established a new overall framework for water management. The new Bathing Water Directive requires member states to have a coherent management plan for each site which will be based on an assessment of the pollution sources. If a site has poor water quality it must be prepared to close the bathing area especially if there are conditions conductive to pollution which are forecast. If the quality standards are not met, remedial measures must be taken.

APEC Water Quality Criteria or Standards Adopted in the Asia Pacific Region

In 2007 under the auspices of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) the Hong Kong Environmental Protection Department undertook a study of the Water Quality Criteria or Standards Adopted in the Asia Pacific Region. The project covered the WQC/WQS adopted in the member economies for the protection of the aquatic resources and uses; as well as the approach/methodology and the scientific rationales for deriving the WQC/WQS in the member economies.

The APEC Study was a global review of the water management systems currently adopted in the APEC economies. There were fourteen economies reviewed; Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, People’s Republic of China, Hong Kong, Malaysia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Peru, Philippines, Singapore, Taipei, Thailand and the United States of America.

Australia and New Zealand have two classifications of water bodies, namely fresh water and marine. In light of the diversity of ecosystems and variation in water bodies and climates, the water management authorities in those respective regions took a different tact starting the year 2000. The new approach took into consideration the protection of up to six different types of ecosystems tailoring the water criteria to the ambient conditions. The classification is hierarchical with varying levels of detail applying to the different categories of indicators, such as physical or chemical stressors, biological indicators, toxicants and sediments. One example would be the category of chemical stressors and physical stressors, the six ecosystem types are estuarine, coastal & marine, lakes & reservoirs, wetlands, upland rivers & streams, lowland rivers & streams.

Both Australia and New Zealand have recognized the cultural value of water to their respective indigenous people. The native Aborigines and Maori both believe that water is to be associated with sacred sites, and the well-being of the native population is intrinsically linked to the condition of the water in the territory. Given the considerable interest of the indigenous groups and the concurrent lack of water quality guidelines for such beneficial uses, the New Zealand Ministry for the Environment proposed to develop guidelines to reflect the values and cultural beliefs of the natives and to incorporate them into the relevant ecosystem outcomes and actions. There is currently no Water quality criteria or Water quality standard in place for this category in either Australia or New Zealand. These values will be taken into account through the process of establishing the specific Water quality criteria or Water quality standards for particular water resource.

Good water quality is an essential ingredient for a successful livestock industry while the inverse is true and poor water quality may hamper animal production and impair fertility. Ground water and surface water are sources of drinking water for livestock. The quality of these sources is also afflicted by land uses in the catchment, which is agriculture, mining, fishery and other industries. Australia, Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand and the Philippines all have developed a Water quality criteria or Water quality standard for livestock drinking water which takes to account the need for an integrated approach to land and water management in the affected areas.

Canada is the sole country among those studies that vehave a Water quality criteria or Water quality standard for the protection of wildlife consumers of aquatic biota. A large number of Canadian wildlife species depend on aquatic species as their primary source of food. As a result of consuming their aquatic prey the wildlife species might also build up to dangerous concentrations of toxic substances. Separate Water quality criteria or Water quality standards are set as it is believed that water quality guidelines are not deemed appropriate for the target substances since they are more likely to partition into the tissue of aquatic organisms or sediment instead of staying in the water column.

Recreational use has traditionally meant either primary contact recreation or secondary contact recreation. In Australia and New Zealand, there is a third category known as recreational with no human contact. Starting in 1998 China, reclassified the beneficial uses of marine water from three to four its categories are now; (1) fishing conservation of marine resources and endangered species, (2) Mariculture, recreational activities, human food consumption; (3) industrial, seaside promenade and tourist spots; (4) Oceanic development. Different Water quality criteria or Water quality standards are applied for different levels of protection or beneficial use.

Chile, China and Malaysia all have different Water quality criteria or Water quality standards for different types of irrigation water. Chile has two kinds of irrigation after which are defined by the type of crops irrigated. China has three categories for watering which are hydroponics crops, crops under controlled irrigation and general vegetables. Malaysia has four categories which are normal use, semi-tolerant, tolerant and fine texture soil.

Development of Water quality criteria or Water quality standards

The general differences in the framework of the system of the Water quality criteria or Water quality standard are contemplated as follows;

Most states have adopted several sets of Water quality criteria or Water quality standards, related to different types of receiving waters and beneficial uses. Essentially there are three levels in the hierarchy of WQC / WQS. At the very top, water quality “targets” are the considerable concentrations or narrative statements recommended to support and maintain a designated use. These so-called “primary target values” are usually derived from scientific data and are not site-specific. The middle category is known simply as state/territory “targets” which are used to protect and maintain the designated uses of water at the specific place or region. These “secondary target values” are derived from the primary target values according to the local needs and established protocols.

Nested at the bottom are the target values for regulating the quality of the effluent discharged into the receiving water bodies.

There are different terminologies that are used in describing the “target values” for achieving the goals in protecting the environment. For instance at the top level of the hierarchy, “criteria” is used in Chile, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, the United States of America; “Guidelines” is the term used in Australia, Canada New Zealand, Singapore, Philippines; “Objectives” is the operative term in Hong Kong. And “Standards” is the word used in China, Taiwan and Thailand.

Depending on the system adopted by the economies, the principal water quality targets are not usually legally binding. They are often used just for reference values for the state or territory government to work out their own target values. While the secondary quality targets are used as the indicators for the local jurisdictions to measure performances in the attainment of management goals or attainment of environmental goals. This is the situation applies to Australia, Canada, Chile, China, New Zealand and the USA.

For instance, The Canadian Water Quality Guidelines were developed in 1987 protection of different water resources such as drinking water and recreational water, agricultural irrigation water, livestock watering and freshwater life. In the 1990s, the Canadian Environmental Quality Guidelines were released to supersede the 1987 version and to include guidelines regarding other media such as marine waters, sediment, soil, air, and additionally, tissue residue guidelines for the protection of wildlife consumers of aquatic biota.

By way of comparison, the National Water Quality Criteria as applied across the country of Papua New Guinea is somewhat laxer. Considering that about 90% of the population lives in rural areas, it is considered sufficient that the criteria for the protection of raw drinking water and aquatic life, recreational and aesthetic uses are relevant for the entire country for both fresh and marine water. It is also considered that the protection of water quality for other uses could be achieved via the application of the established criteria for the protection of aquatic life. While the protection of other uses could be achieved by way of a discharge permit that required the trade or the industry to treat the wastewater effluent to the required quality this is considered unnecessary in Papua New Guinea as the current norm is considered sufficient for all.

In Singapore, water quality guidelines exist only for mariculture. The water quality of other receiving water bodies is protected by way of controlling the quality of trade effluent discharges. The maximum allowable limits have been developed for discharges made into sewers, general water courses and controlled watercourses.

In the United States water quality criteria are governed under Section 304(a) of the Clean Water Act. The United States has published water quality criteria for 158 “priority” toxic pollutants by the year 2000. In the latest compilation of the nationally recognized water quality criteria, many of these criteria have been continuously revised for improvement based on the EPA’s evolving methods of deriving human health criteria. Furthermore, aside from narrative and numeric form of water quality criteria includes: biological, human heath, nutrient, sediment, wetland and wildlife.

The rationale for including a parameter or substance in the list of WQC / WQS varies. For instance: the inclusion of a certain parameter or substance into the list of WQC/WQS is mainly due to its effect on the environment fluvial. If the economy is a federal system instead of a Unitarian one, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States are examples of this, the inclusion may depend on if the parameter/substance is one of local or national concern. In Canada, the parameter/substance may be included if there is a demand from society and sufficient scientific data are available to support this decision.

In general across the states studies, the general approaches to the development of the WQC/WQS are as follows:-

The primary water quality targets are values based on the scientific literature as well as field testing data and scientific judgment. They are commonly nationally endorsed for the development of a national water quality standard. The setting of secondary water quality goals is usually set based on local reference data and legislatively mandated and established protocols.

The countries Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States of American are known to have developed their own guidelines to derive the primary and secondary water quality targets which aim to provide an objective, internally consistent, appropriate, and technically feasible way of deriving water quality targets.

As not all APEC states have the scientific know-how and resources to develop their own WQC / WQS some states will often resort to the derivations of the WQC / WQS set by other countries. Often APEC states will refer to the studies made by the United States Environmental Protection Agency, the Environment Canada, Environment Agency of Japan, World Health Organization, American Water Works Association, Water Environment Foundation, United Nations Environment Programme, and the Organization for economic Co-operation and development (OECD). Other reasons for resorting to using these data as a comparison and basis include similarities in topographical/climate conditions, similar uses or resources and the fact that these organizations had more scientific resources available.

The regulatory systems of the listed economies are known to modify the set of national WQC or WQS as appropriate in order to suit the needs of localized conditions. This is more often the case in large states like Australia, Canada, Chile, China, New Zealand and the United States. The majority of states have monitoring programs to assess compliance with the WQC / WQS and these programs depend largely on the ability of an individual state to control data. Where there is a mixing zone/dilution zone allowed, the specific requirements of limiting the size of the zone are often the most descriptive, i.e. as small as possible or proven that with the best available technology the WQC/WQS could not be met. For example in Taiwan the quantitative requisite is “within 2 kilometers from the discharge point”

The measurement of compliance with the WQS / WQCs varies considerably between the APEC economies. For instance, Australia uses a median monthly data at a site to compare with the fixed percentile at a reference site or with default guidelines values. The maximal limits are used for different types of parameters in most of the other economies. For example, microbiological, physical, chemical parameters are varied but are usually based on studies from the other countries.

Framework of the WQC / WQS systems

Australia and New Zealand

The Australian and New Zealand Environment and Conservation Council have developed a number of policies relating to national and international environmental and conservation issues. Building on this already august foundation, both Australia and New Zealand have adopted the same water quality criteria and many other environmental policies.

The National Water Quality Management Strategy sets out the national, strategic direction for water quality management in both nations. The responsibility for water management lies with the respective local jurisdictions. The national norms act as a guideline for the strategy for the local government units to develop their own area-specific water quality objectives. The concept of integrated catchment management (ICM) is adopted to achieve the goals of environmental protection. Within the ICM framework, all stakeholders will be involved in setting the water quality targets through negotiation between the government and the community. This method of setting the water quality guidelines will involve defining the environmental values for a particular water resource that the local community needs or desires to protect. These regional water quality objectives and implantation plans will be used to develop a plan in consonance with the national water quality guidelines. The relevant stakeholder groups will be involved in the process to buildup community ownership of the water management goals.

A “Risk-based decision framework” is then used in the development of the local water quality objectives. The framework will set the guidelines for the development of the area-specific trigger values based on biological effects or reference data. With a view to using local needs, the trigger value could vary depending on the level of protection the local government desires to achieve. Finally, an integrated approach using a mix of physical-chemical and biological indicators is being used an approach that uses a mix of physical-chemical and biological indicators that are used in the determination of quality monitoring and assessment.

A national framework was developed in Australia for the monitoring of water quality and for reporting the outcomes, with a view towards improving water quality monitoring and helping the varied programs become more consistent with each other. The monitoring data from the different programs can be compared to each other across regions and over the passage of time. This will save money and help establish the “big picture”. Monitoring programs are run by the state and local government units and various community sectors.

New Zealand employs a “Pressure-State-Response” protocol in defining national indicators. Among the indicators they have developed include; air, marine, climate change, ozone, land, waste, freshwater, transport, amenity, pest/weeds, diseases, energy, biodiversity, contaminated sites and Maori.


By comparison Brunei has yet to establish a comprehensive law that will specifically address the protection of water quality. There is no single agency in that country that takes ownership of environmental issues such as enforcement of environmental laws. Three beneficial uses have been defined for marine waters in Brunei. The water quality targets are based on those adopted by other neighboring states although the government is free to modify its policies as it sees fit. The water quality targets are statutory in nature but the local government units are still free to modify to meet specific needs. The present legally enforceable standards have not been fully developed and instead they still rely on the internationally accepted standards set forth by the WHO and fellow Association of South East Asian Nations members. The National Committee on Environment is the inter-agency unit that is tasked with developing policy and is responsible for the regional and international liaison on matters of the environment. The Committee is currently in the process of considering proposed amendments to environmental policy objectives and strategies.


The enabling law for Water Quality Standards in Canada is the Federal Water Policy. It sets out the Canadian federal government’s philosophy and goals for the management of the nation’s water resources. The federal government commits to developing the primary values of water quality that can sustain the health of the ecosystems and the protection of the water resources. Under the constitution act, the provinces of Canada exercise direct control over many aspects of water management.

The Canadian federal government has endorsed an integrated approach to the planning and development of water resources in the individual provinces. This approach takes into account all the water uses and the water-related activities within a certain administrative region.

The Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment (CCME) developed a number of protocols for deriving the primary and secondary water quality goals for the different designated beneficial uses. Each protocol specifies the requirement and different procedures that could be used in the derivation. These derivations take into account the numerical water quality guidelines for the protection of aquatic life. For example, the primary water quality target values are derived from the lowest-observed-effects level (LOEL) from chronic studies, for the most sensitive life stage of the most sensitive species investigated. Needless to say this results in a very exacting standard.

Canada uses four different procedures to derive the regional water quality objectives. Such procedures are not the prescribed methods that must be used. Instead they are intended to assist the responsible federal, provincial and territorial authorities in the selection of methods that apply best to their particular jurisdiction.

These procedures are as follows:

  • Background concentration procedure;
  • Recalculation procedure
  • Water effect ratio procedure
  • And Resident species procedure.

As there is no national monitoring program in place in Canada these many local and provincial government-sponsored monitoring programs take their place and make use of different components to assess water quality. For example, a water quality index (WQI) is used in the jurisdictions of Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba, Newfoundland and Labrador, and Quebec. The WQI reports on the state of the water by combining three factors; First the scope which measures the number of objectives not met within a given time period, Second the frequency or the measure of the number of times objectives were not met within the same period of time. And finally, amplitude or the measure of the maximum amount by which objectives were not met within the same period of time. These three factors are combined to produce a single value that accurately describes water quality.


In Chile the water quality criteria erewere developed to serve as recommendations for the local jurisdictions to work out their respective secondary water quality values. The procedure by which the secondary water quality standards are derived is set out in a presidential decree. The whole process ordinarily will require about a year to complete. To start the process, the National Commission for Environment (NEC) will disclose to the public information on the quality of the concerned water bodies and water courses. The NEC will then coordinate with the competent authorities to assign a water quality class to the concerned water bodies and to derive the secondary water quality standards. Such secondary water quality standards will take into account the intrinsic quality and the uses and resources that must be protected as well as the trophic level at which it is to be preserved.

Compliance with the secondary water quality standards is classified into three categories and these are recommended remedial actions specified for each level in the event of non-compliance: the first level exists when a controlled parameter is above the maximum allowable standard, in this case the concerned water body is declared as saturated and a decontamination program will be established shortly. The second level occurs when the controlled parameter is between 80% and 100% of the standard acceptable value, the water body is declared latent and a prevention program will be established. Finally, when the controlled parameter is below 80% of the standard value, an investigation and restoration program will resume and the said body of water is considered standard.

Mainland China

This data excludes Hong Kong which is covered elsewhere. The State Environmental Protection Administration is responsible for the environmental protection of mainland China, while the State Oceanic Administration is the administrative body responsible for the work in coastal and oceanic regions. Both administrations are tasked with formulating the national standard for water quality and with the implementation of the national water management strategy.

For the maritime environment, the quality standard that was developed covers the marine water, sediment and tissue residue. The Monitoring programs were developed for the bodies of water with respect to their beneficial uses or geographic location. The ranking of the maritime water is categorized into five classes which correspond to the classifications found in the water quality standards. Assessments of water quality in other aspects are measured via the rate of compliance with the aforementioned water quality standards. The environmental protection departments of the coastal provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities are directly responsible for the implementation of the work and are required to regularly submit update reports to the State Oceanic Administration.


The agency in charge is known as the Department of the Environment (DOE) and it takes care of the nation’s environmental management protocols thanks to its mandate from the Environmental Quality Act of 1974. Water quality criteria and interim water quality standards were established for protecting and conserving natural resources.

Papua New Guinea

The point agency is the Department of Environment and Conservation (DEC) which has recently formulated a new set of criteria for water quality and will be introducing these criteria within the year. The new criteria are to be established with a view towards ensuring compatibility with the recent advances in water chemistry and toxicological effects of certain inorganic and organic chemicals. The national water quality criteria established by the DEC are used as-is across the country.


The environmental agency of Peru is currently working on developing new water quality criteria and little information aboutthe development process is available. In theory, the development will be based on local studies collated with the water quality criteria adopted by the USEPA, UNESCO and Environment Canada. A set of national criteria is strictly followed by local government units and they are not allowed to modify these set national criteria.


Singapore’s Environmental Pollution Control Act provides the legally mandated framework for the control of environmental pollution. The goal quality of marine water is set by using references to the water quality guidelines for mariculture which were developed by the Agriculture-Food and veterinary authority. Protection of Water resources falls under the aegis of the Pollution Control Department (PCD) through controlling the quality of the sewage discharged into the sewerage system, water courses and uncontrolled water courses.


Protection of water quality lies with the Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) via the Marine Pollution Control Act and Water Pollution Control Act. Under the Marine Pollution Control Act, water quality standards were developed for three classes of beneficial uses of maritime water and for the protection of human health. Ground water was recently recognized as another possible domestic drinking water source along with the previously recognized river water. There are currently moves being undertaken to turn over legitimate control for the protection of the water sources under the Water Pollution Act.

Monitoring programs for river water and recreational beach water have been in place for many years in Taiwan. The management of the rivers focuses on ensuring the supply of water resources and does little to affect the overall ecosystem quality based on the interaction with biodiversity. In addition to the widely used physical and chemical indicators for river monitoring, the Taiwanese government has also authorized sediment and aquatic organism indicators to supplement river quality evaluation.


Under the Enhancement and Conservation of the National Environment Quality Act B. E. 2535 (1992), the Pollution Control Department takes responsibility for water resources management in the nation. Thailand makes use of a comprehensive system of WQC/WQS where numerical water quality standards were developed for drinking water, groundwater, surface water, coastal water and fresh water aquatic resources. Surface water and coastal water are further categorized into 4 to 5 classes for different levels of protection or use.

United States of America

Pursuant to section 304(a) of The Clean Water Act, USEPA is required to develop and publish, and from time to time revise, water quality criteria accurately reflecting the latest scientific knowledge. States are required to establish site-specific water quality standards following the procedures prescribed in section 303(c).

The options available for those who would set the standards are as follows:-

  • adopt the recommended section 304(a) criteria;
  • modify the section 304(a) criteria to reflect site-specific conditions;
  • derive criteria using other scientifically defensible methods;
  • establish narrative criteria where numeric criteria cannot be determined

With respect to the prior toxic pollutants for which the USEPA has not issued any recommendations, the states are allowed to adopt criteria based on the biological monitoring or assessment methods which may include whole-effluent toxicity control methods and biological criteria methods. The Federal nature of the United States allows states to adopt certain policies in the implementation of the water quality standards such as mixing zones, water quality standard variances and critical flows for water quality-based permit limits and anti-degradation programs.

The USEPA regularly releases various documents providing guidelines on deriving primary and secondary water quality values. The acute and chronic toxicity data are used for the derivation of the water quality criteria. Three approaches are used for deriving site-specific water quality standards;

  • Recalculation procedures
  • Indicator species procedures
  • Resident species procedures

Each State and Territory has its own monitoring program to assess the achievement of environmental goals. To enable global monitoring of the United States’ water and the sharing of information across local government units, an Intergovernmental Task Force on Monitoring Water Quality was formed. It would be later succeeded in 1997 by the National Water Quality Monitoring Council which has since proposed a national strategy for the improvement of water quality monitoring in the country and even developed a model for monitoring different types of designated uses based on a combination of biological, physical and chemical monitoring methods. A work plan is currently under development in order to implement this at the national level.

Environment Protection Agency

The United States Environmental Protection Agency is the federal agency of the United States tasked to regulate chemicals and protect human health by safeguarding the natural environment: air, water and land. The Environmental Protection Agency began operations on 2 December 1970 when it was established by a congressional bill signed into law by President Richard Nixon. It has been chiefly concerned with the environmental policy of the United States.

The United States’ Water Quality Criteria standard was the same for over twenty years until changed recently. The United States Environmental Protection Agency held an Expert’s Scientific Workshop in March 2007 to discuss critical research and science needs for the development of new or revised ambient water quality criteria in the near future.

The Critical Path Science Plan (2007) describes the high-priority research and science that the EPA intends to implement to establish the scientific foundation for the development of the new or revised recreational water quality criteria recommendations. The primary governing law on water quality in the United States is called the Clean Water Act.

The United States Water Quality Standards are hazard-based requirements that set site-specific allowable pollutant levels for individual water bodies. These WQS are set by the respective states which classify their bodies of water as either recreation, water supply, aquatic life, or agricultural water. Once they are classified water quality criteria are then applied to protect the designated uses. Anti-degradation policies are also issued by each state to maintain and protect existing uses and high-quality waters (EPA 1999).

EPA BEACH program

The EPA BEACH Program is targeted at improving public access to information on water quality at beaches and the health risks associated with swimming in those waters. This program was formulated in response to widespread public outcry about the condition of our nation’s waters. The BEACH program was set into force by the Clean Water Act of 1972 which itself was an expansion of existing laws designed to control and prevent water pollution. It is an essential aspect in ensuring that the American public is aware of what Water Quality Standards are. (EPA 2008)

Water Quality Standards are the cornerstone of a state’s water quality management program. Based on the program of action espoused in the Clean Water Act States, territories and Indian tries set water quality standards for waters within their jurisdiction. Water quality standards define a use for a water body and describe the specific water quality criteria to achieve that use. The water quality standards also have anti-degradation policies to protect the current water quality. This water quality standard is administered and maintained by the United States Environmental Protection Agency as it is mandated by the United States Congress to provide water quality criteria recommendations; approve state-adopted standards for waters of the United States; evaluate adherence to the standards and overseeing enforcement of standards compliance.

Under the BEACH program, Fecal bacteria is used as an indicator of the possible presence of pathogens in surface waters and the risk of disease, based on epidemiological evidence of gastrointestinal disorders from ingestion of contaminated surface water or raw shellfish. Contact with the contaminated water can also lead to ear or skin infections, and the inhalation of contaminated water can cause respiratory diseases. The pathogens responsible for these diseases can be bacteria, viruses, protozoans, fungi, or parasites that live in the gastrointestinal tract and are shed through the feces of warm-blooded animals. However, due to the problems involved in analyzing for and detecting the many possible pathogens or parasites, concentrations of fecal bacteria, including fecal coliforms, enterococci and E. coli are used as the principal indicators of fecal contamination. The later two indicators are believed to have the highest degree of association with the outbreak of certain diseases as opposed to fecal coliforms and were recommended as the basis for bacterial water quality standards from the 1986 Ambient Water Quality Criteria for Bacteria document. The standards are defined as concentration of the above indicator which, if exceeded, would indicate that the risk to health from waterborne disease is unacceptably high.

Before the 1986 revisions to the U.S. criterion, there were recommendations found in the report of the National Technical Advisory Committee to the Secretary of the Interior (Water Quality Criteria 1967) and by the Environmental Protection Agency (Quality Criteria for Water 1976). Both of these documents were based on the sampling of fecal coliforms and recommended that the maximum densities not exceed geometric means of 200 organisms per 100 mL. in recreational waters.

As of 2003, before Enterococcus became the standard for marine water testing, ten states already used it as the standard for marine water testing; these states are; California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Texas, Virginia.


The Philippines is an archipelago of some 7,107 islands that lie in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Southeast Asia just south of Taiwan. The Water Quality Standards used in this country are of interest for two reasons. As a tropical country it is almost similarly situated as Hong Kong in terms of weather patterns. Second as a developing country a comparison of its Water quality standards to those of Hong Kong will speak volumes about the economic aspect behind Water Quality Standards.

The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) is the primary division tasked with the development of policies on the environment and natural resources, as the name would suggest. A subunit of the DENR is the Environment Management Bureau which is responsible for the administration of control over water quality. The Water quality criteria have been established for two types of aquatic bodies; Fresh water and coastal / sea water. Each body of water is further subdivided into four to five classes. The water quality criteria have been set for each class for different levels of protection or uses. The levels of water quality criteria are set at a national level and local jurisdictions have no power to modify those values.

Water and Health

Historically, there have been a number of large epidemics of waterborne diseases throughout the country, particularly of cholera and typhoid fever during the 1990s. While diarrhea remains the number one cause of illness in all age groups. The decline in the incidence of cases is accompanied by reports to the Philippine Department of Health of a significant reduction in the number of food-borne and water-borne infection outbreaks in the past years. Investigations of these epidemics have identified contaminated drinking water as the culprit. Simply put, poor water quality has been the leading cause of epidemics in the Philippines.

Pressures on resources and supply

The Philippines suffers from poor waste management and the disposal of solid and liquid waste has reached the tipping point especially in Metro Manila and other urban centers. Pollution has become so bad that the resulting pollution directly affects water quality and the nation’s food resources. The pollution in Metro Manila is especially severe, and nearly all the surface waters in that region are considered biologically dead during the dry season. The quality of water has deteriorated to the point that nearly half the country’s classified rivers now fall below the normal quality standards. This trend of rampant pollution shows no sign of abating. The pollution levels are already serious compromising the country’s water resources for potential domestic, agricultural, and industrial use. In the 1990s the government privatized water supply in Metro Manila, an act which has had an adverse effect on the quality of sewage treatment in the city.

Water Quality surveillance and monitoring

The Philippines has a national vision for safe water which was enunciated in the National Objectives for Health prepared by the Department of Health in 1999. The goal was to increase the proportion of households with access to safe water to 91% by the year 2004. Safe water in this case is defined as that water is free of bacteriological, viral or other disease-causing organisms, radioactivity, chemical contamination, or turbidity and should not possess undesirable taste, odor or color.

The Major policies on water supply supporting this vision are governed by presidential decrees, republic acts and administrative orders. At the national level the key operators in the water sector are the Department of Health (DOH) which is responsible for water quality monitoring and coordinating the development of the drinking water standards, the Department of Public Works and Highways is responsible for the construction of the major public water-supply networks, excluding those in the Metro Manila region, The National Water Resources Board for licensing of water resources. The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) formulates and revises water quality criteria for freshwater resources and effluent standards including the regulation of the quality and quantity of effluent.

The Local Government Code of 1991 devolved the duties for the implementation of water supply services to local government units while the national agencies remained responsible for the policy development, regulation and technical assistance to these units. At the local government level the Provincial, municipal and city planning and development offices are the ones responsible for developing water supply plans.

The municipal health office implements the water quality surveillance programs and oversees the creation of Rural Waterworks and Sanitation Associations while individual Water Districts administer water supply systems in provinces. Supporting local governments are the Department of Interior and Local Government which is tasked to provide institutional development, and the Local Water Utilities Administration which provides financial and technical assistance to Water Districts for viable waterworks and water supply projects.

Water Quality Standards

The Philippine National Standard for Drinking Water of 1993 outlines the various parameters that are used in the analysis of drinking water quality. There are 56 bacteriological, physical, chemical, radiological and biological parameters being monitored. These include the bacteriological parameters, E. Coli or thermotolerant (fecal) coliform bacteria, Total coliforms and Total Count, and among the organic chemical constituents are predominantly pesticides such as Aldrin, Dieldrin, Chlordane, DDT, Endrin, Heptachlor and Heptachlor epoxide, Lindane, Methoxychlor, Petroleum oils and grease, Toxyphane, 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T. Other chemical parameters measured include: arsenic, barium, boron, cadmium, chromium, cyanide, fluoride, lead, mercury (total), nitrate as NO3, nitrite as NO2, and selenium and those that affect the aesthetics and physical quality of the water such as aluminum, chloride, copper, hydrogen sulfide, iron, manganese, sodium, sulfate, total dissolved solids, zinc hardness, pH, giving rise to problems with taste, odor, color and turbidity.

Parameters are also measured that arise from the disinfection processing of the water supply and include, Chlorine (residual), Bromate, Chlorite, 2,4,6 trichlorophenol, Formaldehyde, Phenolic substances, Bromoform, Dibromochloromethane, Bromodichloromethane, and Chloroform. Radiological parameters measured include Gross alpha and beta activities. A similar testing process is used for recreational water testing but the threshold is considerably lower.

Comment and recommendations

Measures to Improve Beach Water Quality

Hong Kong has gone through leaps and bounds in a major effort in the last 20 years to tackle pollution problems and to improve recreational beach water quality. The following are suggested measures to further improve beach water quality as well as to improve the testing measures undertaken to determine beach water quality.

First Aid Measures

The mid-1980s saw raw sewage pollution as a serious problem in some beaches due to inadequate public sewers arising from the rapid population boom and developments. A majority of the squatters and villagers living in the beach hinterlands did not have ready access to the public sewage system and as an expedient simply channeled untreated sewage directly into streams or storm drains and as a result some of their waste ended up on the beaches. In addition many new housing developments had poor capacity or improperly operated septic tanks or on-site sewage treatment facilities which proved to be highly problematic.

Upon the establishment of the Environmental Protection Department in 1986 it quickly investigated the situation and assessed the condition of recreational beaches. It also initiated a series of emergency measures to try and bring the situation under its control. Among these “first-aid” measures included an attempt to intercept polluted stormwater flows and direct them away from the beaches and pumping sewage from houses near the beaches to sewage treatment plants. The fruit of these emergency measures was immediately noticeable especially in some of the beaches in the southern part of Hong Kong.

Legislation and Enforcement

In order for the environmental reforms to stick effective enforcement of environmental legislation will play a crucial role. It was important that the measures were properly enforced so that the water quality of the bathing beaches could be protected. A series of anti-pollution laws were promulgated and related measures were put into place in the late 1980s. As wastewater discharge and livestock waste were their principal sources of beach pollution, the Water Pollution Control Ordinance and the Waste Disposal (Livestock Waste) Regulation were enacted. These laws were designed to be systematically implemented in the different regions of Hong Kong in graduated phases to allow residents, factory operators and farmers to be able to build their own pre-treatment facilities, control their wastewater discharges and comply with the discharge license requirements. Data from the beach monitoring program and special legislation was used to track down sources of pollution with a view towards enforcement action responding effectively to these polluters.

Sewage Infrastructure

In order to achieve sustainable and desirable bathing water quality, Hong Kong needs to have an efficient sewage infrastructure to deal with its 2.6 million cubic meters of sewage produced daily. Since the 1990s, Hong Kong has developed a number of Sewerage Master Plans, these were a series of systematic plans to upgrade sewerage networks and sewage treatment facilities on a catchment by catchment basis. This basis would include the beach hinterlands. Specifications and detailed engineering studies were conducted to reduce pollution on individual beaches. Over the years, the recommendations of these studies were progressively implemented. By 2006, approximately 92% of Hong Kong residents are served by this public sewerage system.

Hong Kong is also in the process of implementing a major sewage project known as the Harbour Area Treatment Scheme or (HATS). This project will be implemented in stages with a view toward improving the water quality of the famous Victoria Harbour. Based on the HATS Stage 1, 1.4 million cu. ermeters per day of raw sewage produced by Kowloon and the Northeastern quadrant of Hong Kong Island is collected for a chemically enhanced primary treatment. The HATS Stage 1 was commissioned in 2001 and has brought about a marked improvement of water quality in the eastern sections of Victoria Harbour and beaches on the eastern side of the island. The HATS Stage 2A is still in its planning stage and will treat the rest of the sewage from the Victoria Harbor area. Included in this planned treatment is disinfection treatment. Upon its final completion, the scheme would improve the water quality of the western Victoria Harbour area and the beaches west of Kowloon. In addition to sewage discharges and polluted stormwater, bathing facilities and toilets on the beaches are also considered a source of local pollution. Over the years, these facilities have been upgraded and their wastewater is now either connected to main sewers or properly treated at on-site facilities.

Suggestions for Improvement

It has been suggested that Hong Kong switch to more stringent standard of E. coli than the current standard it has further been suggested that Hong Kong should switch to enterococci instead of E. Coli. However this study would answer both suggestions in the negative.

On the mater of enterococci, it has been shown that enterococci are a better standard for use in detecting pollution levels in beaches in Europe and the United States. However, it was shown that when attempts to use enterococci in Hong Kong it was not as prevalent as E. coli. In other words, it is possible for a beach to be very heavily contaminated and unsuited for human recreational use yet it would still not show sufficient quantities of enterococci to be viewed as such. The current standard is still more efficient since it is already an effective indicator of pollution levels.

Likewise, making the standard more stringent will have little effect. The status quo is already effective in ensuring the safety of the citizens who use the recreation beaches. Increasing the standard will only impose a greater burden because an increased standard may render more beaches inaccessible. The current standard already grants a sufficient threshold to allow people to enjoy the beaches without exposing them to too much risk when they do.

In truth there is really little reason to improve upon the guidelines. Instead efforts should be exerted on improving the timeliness of reporting measures and information dissemination improvements to minimize the possibility that people are affected by the pollution before they are aware that a problem has occurred.

Appendix A Water Quality Guidelines for Bathing Water

Country / Region / Organization Water quality guidelines/standards for bathing water
World Health Organization For marine waters = Intestinal enterococci ≤ 40 (95 percentile)
For Freshwater = E. coli(guideline value not yet established)
E.C. Directive For marine and transitional waters: E. coli≤ 500 (90 percentile)
and Intestinal enterococci ≤ 185 (90 percentile)
For freshwaters: E. coli≤ 900 (90 percentile) a
nd Intestinal enterococci ≤ 330 (90 percentile
Hong Kong For marine waters: E. coli≤ 180 (geometric mean)
United States Environmental Protection Agency For marine waters: Enterococci≤ 35 (geometric mean)
For freshwaters: E. coli≤ 126 (geometric mean)
and Enterococci ≤ 33 (geometric mean)
Australia For marine and fresh waters:
Fecal coliforms ≤ 150 (median over the whole bathing season)
or Enterococci ≤ 35 (median over the whole bathing season)

Appendix B The operational procedures of the Beach Water Quality Monitoring Programme

 The operational procedures of the Beach Water Quality Monitoring Programme
Figure 1. The operational procedures of the Beach Water Quality Monitoring Programme

Appendix C Microbiological (E.Coli) analysis at HKEPD Laboratory Test

Microbiological (E.Coli) analysis at HKEPD Laboratory Test
Figure 2. Microbiological (E.Coli) analysis at HKEPD Laboratory Test


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