Supporting improved fire-water retention to prevent accidental water pollution

The need to ensure adequate fire-water retention

When being asked for causes of water pollution, most people would probably name an accidental spill of a hazardous substance or a leaking sewage system. However, contaminated fire-water — i.e. water used by firefighters to extinguish a blaze — can be a dangerous source of water pollution. If fire-water retention basins are lacking at an industrial facility or are simply too small, contaminated fire-water can pollute nearby rivers and have severe effects on human health and the environment.

A tragic reminder of this was the so-called Sandoz accident thirty-one years ago in November 1986, one of the worst environmental disasters in modern European history. When a fire broke out in an agrochemical warehouse at a pharmaceutical site near Basel, Switzerland, it was not the accident itself that caused the real disaster, but the contaminated fire-water that reached the Rhine. The toxic plume, 70 kilometers long, flowed through Switzerland, France, Germany and the Netherlands. It caused vast transboundary water pollution, threatened drinking water supplies and devastated fish stocks.

Although the accident triggered many improvements in the area of industrial safety in European countries, the issue of fire-water retention has until now not been thoroughly addressed. In many countries, including those with a more advanced level of industrial safety, there are gaps in the national legislation and size requirements for fire-water retention basins remain inadequate. A similar accident could therefore still happen in Europe today.

An integrated approach to support practical action

To avoid a repetition of the “Rhine’s darkest hour” – to use the words of Commissioner for Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries of the European Commission, Karmenu Vella – UNECE set up an Expert Group earlier this year to elaborate safety guidelines and good practices for fire-water retention. Cooperation through the Expert Group represents an integrated approach to the issue, bringing together expertise and experience under UNECE’s Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes (Water Convention) and Convention on the Transboundary Effects of Industrial Accidents (Industrial Accidents Convention).

The guidelines should help overcome challenges and harmonize safety standards within and beyond the UNECE region by compiling good practices and establishing general safety principles and recommendations for governments, operators and competent authorities. As such, the guidelines are positioned to make a direct contribution to the implementation of the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015–2030, as well as to targets of the Sustainable Development Goals on sustainable water management under SDG 6.

The safety guidelines should also provide a basis for practical training activities and the further development of checklists for the planning and operation of industrial facilities, as has already been the case with the UNECE Safety Guidelines and Good Practices for Tailings Management Facilities and the UNECE Checklist for Transboundary Contingency Planning.

Following three meetings of the Expert Group in 2017, a first draft of the safety guidelines and good practices for fire-water retention has now been developed and sent for comments to National Focal Points, Industry Associations, River Basin Commissions, partners and other stakeholders. Their feedback will be invaluable for the finalization of the safety guidelines and good practices ahead of their endorsement in 2018 by the Conference of the Parties to the UNECE Industrial Accidents Convention, and the Meeting of the Parties to the Water Convention.

The Expert Group is composed of experts from Czechia, Finland, Germany, Hungary, Netherlands, Poland, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.