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UNEP: Biological monitoring of freshwater environments

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The world is facing a serious water quality challenge due to increasing water pollution in developed and developing countries. United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) research shows that this is impacting public health, food security, biodiversity and other ecosystem services and that urgent action is needed to assess where water quality is inadequate or under threat.

Biological monitoring

There are various established approaches to monitoring individual organisms, species and biological communities in aquatic environments, known as ‘biological monitoring.’

Biological monitoring, or biomonitoring, can be a useful tool in assessing the health of freshwater systems alongside other freshwater monitoring and assessment approaches that measure the physical and chemical variables in these environments.

Using living organisms, in particular, as biomonitors of pollution or contamination in freshwater has many benefits. For example, these organisms in biological communities can integrate variable exposure to pollution over time and space by reflecting the true health of freshwater systems.

Indicator species within the aquatic environment can highlight when there are sudden abrupt changes and long-term gradual shifts in water quality. Multiple indices have been developed for river and stream environments globally, mostly based on aquatic macroinvertebrates – insects and small animals that live for all or part of their lives in water.

Biological sampling and observing rivers and streams can also provide opportunities for social engagement and the inclusion of local citizens in water quality monitoring in their local area.

Capacity building

A group of people
UNEP GEMS Water in training on monitoring and assessment of freshwater resources: Suva, Fiji, August 2022. Photo: UNEP
UNEP’s Global Environment Monitoring System (GEMS/Water) provides data on freshwater quality to support scientific assessments and decision-making, including building monitoring capacity on various aspects of water quality monitoring and assessment.

Last month, GEMS/Water and its partners organized a training session on the monitoring and assessment of freshwater resources for Fiji officials of the Water Authority and the Environment Division of the Mineral Resources Department.

Life on our planet is highly dependent on freshwater. While nearly 70 percent of the world is covered by water, only 2.5 percent of it is freshwater.

The GEMS/Water Summer School workshop entitled ‘Biological and chemical monitoring of freshwater resources; Regional engagement in the Southwest Pacific,’ was organized in partnership with the GEMS/Water Capacity Development Centre in Ireland, the Water Authority of Fiji, UNEP’s Global Programme Coordination Unit, and local UNDP Teams.

The training featured a series of remotely and locally delivered lectures by water quality experts, roundtable discussions and local field trips on water quality, biological monitoring techniques, and citizen science engagement in local monitoring of freshwater environments.

Key topics included the utility of macroinvertebrates for biological monitoring and climate change impacts on freshwater in Fiji. Local field trips also focused on the physical and chemical monitoring of streams, in tandem with collecting, identifying, and recording macroinvertebrates for the biological assessment of water quality.

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