A recent report from the World Resources Institute examines what happens when water quality data is inaccessible to local communities.
The cattle herders of Mongolia’s Tuul River Basin can’t use cell phones—the only technology readily available to them—to access their government’s online portals on pollution data. Herders are left in the dark about effects that nearby mining is having on their land, groundwater, and livestock. This lack of accessibility is not solely a Mongolian problem. In a recent report, the World Resources Institute has found that information about water quality is not being broadcast in a way that vulnerable communities can easily find or utilize.
The report, “Thirsting for Justice: Transparency and Poor People’s Struggle for Clean Water in Indonesia, Mongolia, and Thailand,” is the result of a three-year investigation into the efficiency of approaches these governments are taking to release water quality data. Even though some countries, like Thailand, have freedom-of-information and right-to-know laws, their implementation is often unsuccessful. “We see information as the first stage towards accountability,” says Carole Excell, co-author of the report and Acting Director of Environmental Democracy Practice at the World Resources Institute. “It’s a mechanism that allows participation and accountability to happen. You have groups around the world that have used their right to clean water to say, ‘My river is polluted and the government has failed me.’ [But they] need to use government [documents] to show how polluted the water is.”
According to the report, 400 million tons of harmful waste from industrial facilities are dumped into the world’s waters each year. Illnesses and deaths caused by pollution cause developing countries to lose 2 to 4 percent of their GDP annually. For rural communities who depend on natural water sources for fishing and farming as well as day-to-day activities like bathing and cooking, a lack of information can be deadly.
Elizabeth Moses, co-author of the report and a research analyst at the World Resources Institute’s Environmental Democracy Practice, has seen the repercussions when communities aren’t informed about environmental risks. Mongolian cattle herders noticed that the increasingly polluted Tuul River was making their cows sick, and customers were complaining that their beef tasted odd. In Serang, Indonesia, villagers said that the nearby Ciujung River was making their skin itch, and that the water—full of industrial discharge from nearby pulp and paper companies—had become so dirty it had drastically reduced the amount shrimp they could harvest.“In Thailand, [where] there are cancer clusters, the government has told [villagers] that the water has arsenic and mercury in it,” says Moses. But the residents don’t know whether they should stop using the water, how the arsenic and mercury got there, or what they should do to respond.
Moses and Excell believe that governments must work with local communities to identify specific information needs. “The next step is for government to discuss with the community what to do to solve the problem,” Moses says. “By not facing it, it allows a system where people continue to get harmed by the water that they drink.”
In an increasingly connected world, it can seem counterintuitive to use low-tech solutions. But, “for the communities we worked in, our finding is definitely [that] non-technical ways are the ways to reach people,” says Excell. When the Mongolian herders tried to access their ministry’s website, they found the databases challenging to use and understand, with little information about their specific water sources. “A lot of what they said was, ‘We really want [the government] to have a dialogue with us,” says Excell. Centralizing data in online portals can be useful for looking at an issue on a national scale, she says, “but local, facility-specific data has to be delivered in a form that [local] people can understand.”
The report lists alternatives that other governments have used to disseminate information to residents: reports in local media, radio alerts, and mobile phone apps specifically designed to work with local technology. In small towns in South Africa and the United Kingdom, the government posts signs warning of water contamination and health risks. Colombia records users’ descriptions of how they want to view materials.
Excell and Moses also worry about how climate change will exacerbate the problems caused by a lack of information. “It’s even more urgent [that residents] get these mechanisms in place for sharing information, because slowly there’s going to be less water available for humans to use,” says Excell.