The Water pollution Problem

And why it should be one of your top environmental concerns

Water is fundamental to the survival of all life and the health of our natural world, however this vital resource is facing a series of threats, all of which are caused primarily by human activity.

Only about three percent of Earth's water is freshwater. Of that, only about 1.2 percent can be used as drinking water, so it’s obvious that protecting our clean water sources is imperative to the health of humans and animals alike.

 

Types of water pollution

 

After air pollution, water pollution is the most prevalent type of pollution in the world today. It affects our rivers, lakes, reservoirs, groundwater, as well as the oceans and seas that cover the majority of our planet. Water pollution can come from a variety of sources, which compromise the quality of water all around the world. These include:

  • Chemical pollution

The number one cause of water degradation around the world is from industrial agriculture, due to the use of chemical-heavy fertilizers and pesticides that can infiltrate both on ground and underground water sources. Industrial sites are also leading contributors, with chemical contamination from metals and solvents also polluting the waterways around industrial sites.

  • Groundwater pollution

As with chemical pollution, groundwater pollution is also a result of agricultural practices, as fertilisers and pesticides applied to crops can seep into the ground and contaminate underwater rivers and waterbeds, leading to contaminated water in wells, boreholes and other places from which groundwater is extracted for human use.

  • Microbiological pollution

This type of pollution is a naturally occurring form of water contamination that humans don't necessarily contribute to, however are impacted by when microorganisms infiltrate water supplies. These microorganisms include bacteria, protozoa and other viruses that cause diseases such as bilharzia and cholera. Water treatment systems are in place for many developed countries to ensure drinking water is treated to remove microbes and their contaminants.

  • Nutrient pollution

Nutrient pollution occurs when too much nitrogen and phosphorus flows into water bodies and cases algae to grow excessively. While nutrients are vital for underwater flora and fauna to flourish, an excess of nutrients can upset the delicate balance of water-based ecosystems. Water sources that are contaminated with nutrient pollution can result in harmful algae blooms that can block out sunlight and inhibit the growth of other organisms.

  • Oxygen-depletion pollution

Another consequence of algal blooms is that they consume much of the oxygen supplies in the water. When oxygen levels in the water are depleted, species which depend upon oxygen to survive suffer, and anaerobic microorganisms begin to thrive, and in the process kill fish and other wildlife

  • Surface water pollution

Surface water refers to any water source that sits above ground, including rivers, lakes, seas and oceans. These water sources can become polluted due to contaminated rainwater runoff that washes harmful pollutants into the water. Some of the most common sources of surface water pollution are human waste, especially in developing countries, as well as runoff from farm fertilizers and chemical runoff from industrial plants. Many surface water pollutants are extremely harmful if consumed, as they can carry high levels of pathogens and waterborne diseases, and cause health problems such as giardia and typhoid.

  • Suspended matter

Things that we do on land can affect the quality of our water. Improperly discarded waste, such as plastic, rubber, cigarette butts or other manmade materials can get washed into our rivers and oceans and persist for a long time. Because they are too robust to dissolve in the water and too big to mix effectively with the molecules, they simply float on its surface and prevent oxygen and sunlight from penetrating below. To show the enormity of this problem, about 40 percent of the world's ocean surface is covered in plastic floating on the surface.

 

The consequences of water pollution

 

Polluted water takes a devastating toll on communities and livelihoods, not to mention aquatic and animal life.

Effects on humans

Drinking contaminated water can be fatal, but many people do not have a choice. Water pollution caused a staggering 1.8 million deaths in 2015, and puts billions more people at risk every year.

According to a 2019 WHO report, 1 in 3 people do not have access to safe drinking water, and contaminated drinking water is estimated to have caused 485,000 deaths each year due to diseases such as diarrhoea, cholera, dysentery, typhoid and polio.

Impact on aquatic life

Our natural ecosystems - which are extraordinary, but very fragile - are highly susceptible to water pollution. There are many cases on record of the destruction of marine life by polluted water. The Deep Horizon catastrophic spill in 2010 off the Gulf of Mexico killed over 82,000 birds, 25,900 marine animals, 6,165 sea turtles, and an unknown number of fish and invertebrates.

Closer to home, waterway litter harms and kills marine wildlife, causing the death of at least 100,000 marine mammals including turtles, dugongs and whales, and nearly one million seabirds worldwide, per year.

Food chain disruption

Removing or altering just one part of the ecosystem can create a ripple effect, putting the entire complex web in peril. For example, toxic chemicals from industry wastewater are poisonous to sea life, and as predators feed on each other, the contaminants will continue to be ingested by increasingly bigger creatures in the food chain. For example, in 2005 due to heavily polluted waters in the Baltic sea, authorities advised people to avoid eating certain fish  due to the fish’s levels of toxicity from living in polluted areas in the Baltic Sea. In some cases, pollution can wipe out an entire part of the food chain. If an organism or prey is wiped out, the predators above it in the food chain die due to a lack of available food source.

Destruction of ecosystems

Many types, such as nutrient pollution which leads to an increase in algae, can distort the ecosystem and lead to the death of fish and other organisms. As algae can deplete oxygen resources in water, other marine animals and aquatic life that depend on oxygen to survive can die.

Economic impacts

The economic impacts of waste pollution are many - from costs associated with managing and restoring polluted water bodies, to the health costs associated with drinking contaminated water, and the reduced ability for food production. While developed countries generally have the funds and infrastructure to treat water effectively, around the world, 80% of water is dumped back into the environment untreated, further contributing to the issue of polluted water.

 

 

How your choices impact the world’s water

 

With so much at stake, the message is clear that we need to step up now to protect our water. While the consequences of water pollution are shocking and concerning, the silver lining lies in the fact that preventing water contamination is fully within our grasp.

Through many of our daily choices and purchases, we may be unintentionally contributing to degrading water quality. But being conscious of the impact of our actions can empower us to make necessary changes to save our precious water.

Here are some ideas for easy ways you can protect our water at home:

  1. Reduce your plastic consumption

Plastic is a significantly toxic pollutant and colossal amounts of it end up in our seas and rivers. In fact, every year in Australia approximately 130,000 tonnes of plastic leaks into the marine environment. Try and avoid it where you can, and opt for reusable alternatives to water bottles, bags, and coffee cups. You can read our other article here for more ideas on how to reduce your use of plastic.

  1. Don’t put trash in the toilet

The toilet should only be used for the obvious - don’t treat it like a bin. It’s especially important to properly dispose of chemicals and medications, as the chemicals can adversely impact aquatic life and contaminate water sources.

  1. Be careful with oils and chemicals.

As well as wreaking havoc on your plumbing, oils poured down the drain contribute to the destruction of our water sources. Household chemicals can also negatively impact our environment and wildlife. Try to opt for non-toxic and biodegradable cleaning products where possible.

  1. Watch out for litter

Of course you shouldn’t leave your rubbish lying around - but you can go a step further by picking up pieces of rubbish you see and putting them where they belong instead of leaving them in the environment.

  1. Eat organic

If possible, spend a little extra to buy organic food - this means it hasn’t been treated with as many synthetic chemicals as other products. This will help reduce the amount of chemicals that end up in our water supplies from agricultural runoff.

  1. Check your car

Take your car in for maintenance regularly and make sure it isn’t leaking oil, as this can end up in waterways and disrupt local ecosystems.

If we don’t act now, clean water could become increasingly scarce in future years, resulting in a global crisis. But by following some of these steps, you can play a small but pivotal role in stopping this tragedy in its tracks, and reversing the damage done to our water sources.

As with many issues affecting our natural world, we need all of us together to do our bit if we want to avoid disaster. That starts with the choices we make today.

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