Skip to main content

Further action is needed to address natural hazards leading to accidental water pollution in transboundary river basins

Further action is needed to address natural hazards leading to accidental water pollution in transboundary river basins

Accidental water pollution

Accidental water pollution, which can be sudden and heavy as a result of industrial accidents, endangers people and the environment where chemical activities take place near a river, lake or water body. Accidental water pollution events can be triggered by natural hazards, such as floods, lightning, earthquakes, landslides or storms, especially in transboundary basins. Better understanding of past “Natech” events (natural-hazard triggered technological accidents), sharing of knowledge on natural hazards and climate change, inter-sectoral and transboundary dialogue, and an open mind towards innovative solutions to deal with future risks of accidental water pollution are needed to prevent future accidental pollution events and to prepare operators and governments alike to mitigate their consequences.

Hosted by the government of Hungary and with the support of Germany, the Joint Expert Group on Water and Industrial Accidents (JEG) under the UNECE Industrial Accidents and Water Conventions organized a seminar in Budapest (hybrid, 5 October 2022) to harness lessons learned from past events and share lessons learned to better apply state-of-the-art approaches, in order to deal with accidental water pollution triggered by natural hazards.

Speakers from Australia, Ghana, Kazakhstan and Moldova, as well as river basin organizations, for the protection of the Danube, Meuse, Sava and Scheldt rivers, the Interstate Commission for Water Coordination in Central Asia and the International Commission on Large Dams discussed challenges for the prevention of accidental water pollution, touching on a wide variety of topics, such as mine tailings safety, early warning systems and nature-based and revalorisation of waste to prevent accidents.

Mr. Szilárd Szabó, Head of the International Department of the National Disaster Management Directorate of Hungary, stated that “Hungarian industrial safety and water management departments have been working together with great efficiency to respond to recent pollution events. The results of the JEG are of unquestionable importance to improve our common response to accidental water pollution”.

Joining from Ghana, Ms. Esi Biney, Chief Ecologist of the Water Resources Commission, stated that future mine tailings risk reduction would benefit from regulatory authorities and mine companies taking their respective responsibilities, such as critical assessments during inspections and targeted assistance during emergencies.

Mr. Zoltán Török, Associate Professor at the Babes-Bolyai University in Romania, highlighted that “Countries need to know their landmark natural hazards if they want to manage Natech risks. If risk assessment methodologies, based on multi-hazard and multi-risk assessments, are not fixed in national legislation, understanding of Natech risks will remain scattered and incomplete”.

Ms. Dinara Ziganshina, Director, Scientific-Information Center of the Interstate Commission for Water Coordination of Central Asia (SIC ICWC), discussed the impacts of climate change on infrastructure in Central Asia. “Climate change adds to the challenge of risk management on the transboundary level. It does not only require a systemic approach in the infrastructure life cycle, but also ever increasing involvement of local stakeholders.”

To address the aforementioned complexity in managing tailings management facilities, two member organizations of the International Commission on Large Dams (ICOLD) presented on their updated bulletin on tailings dam design principles. “Standards for infrastructures such as dams and tailings dams are being upgraded through several initiatives. ICOLD is supporting these initiatives by producing guidance with technical focus on governance, technical design, operation, maintenance, decommissioning and closure for both operation and long-term safety”, stated Mr. David Brett, Senior Technical Director, Mine Waste and Water Management, at GHD Tasmania.

Furthermore, Mr. Leon Dhaene, Secretary-General of the International Scheldt Commission, emphasised the importance of communicating regarding pollution that does not fit a clear category. “Even if a pollution is not strictly chemical as we defined it, but all fish are dying, we should warn each other on a transboundary level” he stated. The recent transboundary pollution in the Oder at the German-polish border, demonstrated once again the importance of communication in preventing and reducing the damage caused by accidental water pollution.

During a discussion on challenges in adopting innovative solutions, Mr. Arnaud Vander Velpen, Monitoring and Innovation Lead at UNEP GRID-Geneva, stated that “Adjustments in mineral processing can create a marketable sand product called ore-sand. Almost a third of mine sites in the world can find at least some demand for ore-sand within a 50 km range, with at least 10% reduction in tailings.”

Following the rich exchange of information, Mr. Bojan Srdić, Senior Advisor of the Ministry of Environmental Protection of the Republic of Serbia, the Co-Chair of the JEG concluded that Natech accidents leading to water pollution require stronger (national) legal frameworks creating an enabling environment for integrated risk assessments.  JEG will work on supporting countries in the sustainable (long-term) implementation of its Safety Guidelines and Good industry practices and the application of risk assessment methodologies to this end, through the actions on preventing water pollution in the work plans of the Industrial Accident and Water Conventions.

More information on the seminar and its documentation materials are available at:

Note to editors

The Joint Expert Group on Water and Industrial Accidents (JEG), established under the Industrial Accidents and Water Conventions in 1992 and currently co-chaired by Hungary and Serbia, has been actively supporting countries in preventing and mitigating accidental water pollution, among others by developing UNECE Safety Guidelines and Good Industry Practices and checklists, such as the UNECE checklist for contingency planning for accidents affecting transboundary waters. JEG has also been supporting the application of the Safety Guidelines and Checklists in countries with economies in transition through capacity building activities. With this seminar, JEG aspires to influence the broader policy debate.

The seminar’s findings will be presented at the joint UNECE/OECD Seminar on effective management of technological risks of accidents triggered by natural hazards (Geneva (hybrid) 29 November 2022), taking place in the framework of the twelfth meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Industrial Accidents Convention. Further work on accidental water pollution and Natech is envisaged as per the present and future workplans of the Industrial Accidents and Water Conventions. A joint workshop on preventing accidental water pollution is envisaged to be held and an information repository on accidental water pollution warning systems to be developed during the biennium 2023-24.