World Health Organization, Guidelines for drinking-water quality

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Guidelines for drinking-water quality

Access to safe drinking-water is essential to health, a basic human right and a component of effective policy for health protection.

The importance of water, sanitation and hygiene for health and development has been reflected in the outcomes of a series of international policy forums. These have included health-oriented conferences such as the International Conference on Primary Health Care, held in Alma-Ata, Kazakhstan (former Soviet Union), in 1978.

They have also included water-oriented conferences such as the 1977 World Water Conference in Mar del Plata, Argentina, which launched the water supply and sanitation decade of 1981–1990, as well as the Millennium Development Goals adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations (UN) in 2000 and the outcome of the Johannesburg World Summit for Sustainable Development in 2002. Most recently, the UN General Assembly declared the period from 2005 to 2015 as the International Decade for Action, “Water for Life.”

Access to safe drinking-water is important as a health and development issue at a national, regional and local level. In some regions, it has been shown that investments in water supply and sanitation can yield a net economic benefit, since the reductions in adverse health effects and health care costs outweigh the costs of undertaking the interventions. This is true for major water supply infrastructure investments through to water treatment in the home. Experience has also shown that interventions in improving access to safe water favour the poor in particular, whether in rural or urban areas, and can be an effective part of poverty alleviation strategies.

In 1983–1984 and in 1993–1997, the World Health Organization (WHO) published the first and second editions of the Guidelines for Drinking-water Quality in three volumes as successors to previous WHO International Standards. In 1995, the decision was made to pursue the further development of the Guidelines through a process of rolling revision. This led to the publication of addenda to the second edition of the Guidelines, on chemical and microbial aspects, in 1998, 1999 and 2002; the publication of a text on Toxic Cyanobacteria in Water; and the preparation of expert reviews on key issues preparatory to the development of a third edition of the Guidelines.


In 2000, a detailed plan of work was agreed upon for development of the third edition of the Guidelines. As with previous editions, this work was shared between WHO Headquarters and the WHO Regional Office for Europe (EURO). Leading the process of the development of the third edition were the Programme on Water Sanitation and Health within Headquarters and the European Centre for Environment and Health, Rome, within EURO.Within WHO Headquarters, the Programme on Chemical Safety provided inputs on some chemical hazards, and the Programme on Radiological Safety contributed to the section dealing with radiological aspects. All six WHO Regional Offices participated in the process. This revised Volume 1 of the Guidelines is accompanied by a series of publications providing information on the assessment and management of risks associated with microbial hazards and by internationally peer-reviewed risk assessments for specific chemicals. These replace the corresponding parts of the previous Volume 2. Volume 3 provides guidance on good practice in surveillance, monitoring and assessment of drinking-water quality in community supplies. The Guidelines are also accompanied by other publications explaining the scientific basis of their development and providing guidance on good practice in implementation.

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. The development of this third edition of the Guidelines for Drinking-water Quality includes a substantive revision of approaches to ensuring microbial safety. This takes account of important developments in microbial risk assessment and its linkages to risk management. The development of this orientation and content was led over an extended period by Dr Arie Havelaar (RIVM, Netherlands) and Dr Jamie Bartram (WHO).

Since the second edition of WHO’s Guidelines for Drinking-water Quality, there have been a number of events that have highlighted the importance and furthered understanding of various aspects of drinkingwater quality and health. These are reflected in this third edition of the Guidelines. These Guidelines supersede those in previous editions (1983–1984, 1993–1997 and addenda in 1998, 1999 and 2002) and previous International Standards (1958, 1963 and 1971). The Guidelines are recognized as representing the position of the UN system on issues of drinking-water quality and health by “UN-Water,” the body that coordinates amongst the 24 UN agencies and programmes concerned with water issues. This edition of the Guidelines further develops concepts, approaches and information in previous editions:
• Experience has shown that microbial hazards continue to be the primary concern
in both developing and developed countries. Experience has also shown the value.  

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