Kampala, Uganda | THE INDEPENDENT | The world faces an invisible crisis of water quality. Its impacts are wider, deeper, and more uncertain than previously thought, according to a new report by the World Bank.
The bank cautions that deteriorating water quality worldwide is slashing the economic potential of heavily polluted areas. It further warns that while much attention has focused on water quantity – too much water, in the case of floods; too little water, in the case of droughts – water quality has attracted significantly less consideration.
The World Bank’s study, Quality Unknown: The Invisible Water Crisis, shows that urgent attention must be given to the hidden dangers that lie beneath the water’s surface: In some regions, rivers and lakes are so polluted that they are literally catching fire. Prime examples include the Bellandur Lake in Bangalore, India, which has carried ash onto buildings up to six miles away.
Many other bodies of water, however, are polluting less dramatically, but just as dangerously, with a toxic cocktail of bacteria, sewage, chemicals and plastics, sucking the oxygen out of water supplies, and in effect, poisoning them.
According to the report, lack of clean water limits economic growth by one-third, presenting a dire need for immediate global, national, and local-level attention to the dangers which face both developed and developing countries.
The report argues that without urgent action, water quality will continue to deteriorate, impacting human health, massively reducing food production and, consequently, stalling economic progress.
“Clean water is a key factor for economic growth. Deteriorating water quality is stalling economic growth, worsening health conditions, reducing food production, and exacerbating poverty in many countries,” said World Bank Group President David Malpass.
The report’s estimation of a one-third cut in the economic potential of affected regions, due to low water quality, is based on Biological Oxygen Demand (BOD), which is a measure of how much oxygen is needed to remove waste organic matter through decomposition, by bacteria that live in environments containing oxygen.
Once the BOD reaches a certain threshold, economic growth in areas downstream of the polluted water drops by up to one-third, because of the negative impacts on health, agriculture and ecosystems.
The use of nitrogen as a fertilizer in agriculture is singled out as particularly problematic when it comes to maintaining water quality. Nitrogen enters rivers, lakes and oceans where it transforms into substances known as nitrates.
Nitrates are harmful to young children, affecting their growth and brain development. The study states that for every additional kilogram of nitrogen fertilizer per hectare that enters the water supply as nitrates, the level of childhood stunting can increase by as much as 19 per cent, compared to those who are not exposed.
This also has an impact on the future earning potential of affected children, reducing their earnings as adults, by as much as 2 per cent.
Increased salinity in the water, a consequence of more intense droughts, storm surges and rising water extraction, also comes under scrutiny, as a factor that is making the land less agriculturally productive. The report estimates that the world is losing enough food to feed 170 million people each year.
The report recommends a set of actions that countries can take to improve water quality, including improving environmental policies and standards; accurate monitoring of pollution levels; effective enforcement systems; water treatment infrastructure supported with incentives for private investment; and reliable, accurate information disclosure to households to inspire greater civic engagement.