How Sierra Leone is taking on water pollution

Last year was a landmark one for Sierra Leone’s rivers.

For the first time, the West African country of 7 million submitted a report to the United Nations on the quality of the water in one of its river basins. The assessment of the Rokel catchment, which was supported by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), found that more than half of the stretches of river tested failed to meet national quality standards.

Still, it was an important step in Sierra Leone’s efforts to determine which rivers are under pressure from pollution. And it was one of the latest examples in a global push to head off what experts call a mushrooming water pollution crisis.

“Water pollution is a root cause of the decline of human and ecosystem health,” says UNEP water quality expert Kilian Christ. “Maintaining a healthy relationship between water, nature and people is more important than ever.” 

Around one-third of all rivers in Latin America, Africa and Asia are routinely exposed to untreated wastewater and agricultural run-off. Across the developing world, water quality monitoring is sporadic, especially in Africa.

That’s one reason United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said recently that the world is “tremendously off track” to achieve the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030, including SDG 6, which covers water.

To develop global capacity to monitor the quality of freshwaters and to support assessments, UNEP launched the Global Environment  Monitoring System/ Water (UNEP GEMS/Water) Capacity Development Centre.

Experts there provide guidance to graduate students and municipal officials around the world on how to monitor water quality.

Among them was Sierra Leone’s head of hydrological services, who received graduate training at University College Cork, Ireland with financial support from the UNEP GEMS/Water Capacity Development Centre and Irish Aid.

The support helped Sierra Leone officials develop a water monitoring system and begin testing sections of the Rokel River, which forms the country’s most important catchment. Of the 12 sections of the river classified, seven failed to meet good quality criteria. That showed that water quality in most of the basin is under pressure and provides the evidence officials need to begin tackling pollution.

Sierra Leone now plans to expand monitoring to neighbouring basins and develop laboratory capacity. It has already trained additional staff and created a data management framework.

A long way to go

Water quality is one of the three water indicators in Sustainable Development Goal 6 for which UNEP is the custodian. The organization is responsible for evaluating progress on achieving these targets by 2030, and its latest reports echo the Secretary-General’s message – the world is way off target.

The three UNEP reports will be released at World Water Week, an annual event that addresses the planet’s major water issues. It is due to take place online 23–27 August, with the theme Building Resilience Faster.

The reports stress the need to accelerate water quality monitoring through financing, capacity-building and data collection.

The United Nations has launched the International Decade for Action on Water for Sustainable Development, 2018-2028 and the UN-Water SDG 6 Global Acceleration Framework to speed efforts towards meeting water-related challenges.

With that has come more awareness about the pivotal role of water quality data in sustainable development.

“The right to information about the water quality that supports our health, livelihoods and ecosystems should not be seen as a luxury but as a basic necessity,” said Christ.

UN Environment