Our seas, rivers, streams, lakes and reservoirs are drowning in chemicals, waste, plastic, and other pollutants. Here’s why?and what you can do to help.
While we all know water is very crucial for living beings,we waste it away. Approximately 80 percent of the world’s wastewater is dumped (mostly untreated) back into the environment, polluting seas, rivers, streams, and lakes.
This problem of water pollution is jeopardizing the health of all of us. Unhygienic water kills more people every year than all other forms of “life-killers” combined. As a matter of fact, our drinkable water sources are finite in quantum, Less than one percent of the earth’s freshwater is accessible to humankind.
In 2050, when Global demand for freshwater is expected to be 33% more than the demand for freshwater as of now, it will pose a greater challenge if we don’t take appropriate action.
Sipping a glass of cool, clean and clear water doesn’t mean that the water pollution is a problem elsewhere. But while some people have access to safe drinking water, potentially harmful contaminants (arsenic, copper, lead) can be found in the tap water in different parts of the world.
To get ourselves prepared against the threat to clean water, let us try to understand the problem better and what action we can take about the same. Let us look at an overview of what water pollution is, what causes water pollution, and how we can protect ourselves against water pollution.
What Is the Definition of Water Pollution?
Water pollution happens when harmful substances(chemicals/microorganisms) contaminate a sea, river, stream, lake, or other water body, degrading water quality as well as rendering the water toxic to humans or the environment.
What are the different causes of Water Pollution?
Water is uniquely vulnerable to pollution owing to its chemical structure. Considered to be a “universal solvent,” water is able to dissolve more substances than any other fluid on earth. This is the prime reason why water can be easily polluted. Toxic substances from farms, towns, industries as well as factories readily dissolve into water, mix with it, causing water pollution.
What are the categories of Water Pollution ?
When rain falls and seeps deep into the earth, filling the crevices, cracks, and porous spaces of an aquifer.The aquifer acts as the underground storage tank. This is one of the least visible but the most important natural resources.
Most households rely on groundwater which gets pumped to the earth’s surface, for drinking water. This is the only source of fresh water for many in rural areas.
Groundwater gets polluted due to contaminants like pesticides/fertilizers, waste leachate from landfills/septic systems making their way into an aquifer. This makes the water unsafe for human use. It can be very difficult as well as costly to get rid of contaminants in groundwater.
Pollution of an aquifer can make it unusable for decades, or even many more years. Groundwater can also spread its contamination to other water bodies far from the original polluting source as it seeps into seas, rivers, streams and lakes.
Surface water that covers about 70 percent of the earth is what fills our seas, oceans, rivers, streams, lakes, and all those blue spots on the world map. Surface water from freshwater sources (sources apart from the ocean) accounts for approximately 60 percent of the water delivered to the homes. But this water is in peril.
Most of the surface water is unfit for swimming, fishing, and drinking. Nutrient pollution, (nitrates, phosphates), is the leading contamination type in these freshwater sources. While these nutrients are needed by plants and animals to grow, they have become a major pollutant owing to farm waste as well as fertilizer runoff.
Municipal as well as industrial waste discharges contribute to the share of toxins. There’s also the dumping of junkware by industry as well as individuals, directly into these waterways.
Eighty percent of marine pollution originates from the land (along the coast / far inland). Contaminants such as nutrients, chemicals, and heavy metals are carried from farms, cities and factories, by rivers and streams into the estuaries and bays; from there they travel out to seas and oceans. Meanwhile, marine debris (plastic) is a result of wind blown or washed in via storm drains as well as sewers.
The seas are spoiled by oil spills and leakages. Seas are consistently absorbing carbon pollution from the air. The ocean soaks up as much as one fourth of manmade carbon emissions.
Contamination originating from a single source is called point source pollution. Some of the examples are as follows:
1. wastewater (effluent) discharged by a manufacturer, oil refinery,
2. wastewater treatment facility,
3. contamination from leaking septic systems, chemical and oil spills,
4. illegal dumping.
The EPA regulates point source pollution by establishing limits on what can be discharged by a facility directly into a body of water. While point source pollution originates from a specific place, it can affect miles of waterways and ocean.
Nonpoint source pollution is contamination derived from diffuse sources. These may include agricultural or stormwater runoff or debris blown into waterways from land. Nonpoint source pollution is the leading cause of water pollution , but it’s difficult to regulate, since there’s no single, identifiable source.
Water pollution goes beyond the boundaries set by a map. Transboundary pollution is the aftermath of contaminated water from one country/continent spilling into the waters of another country/continent. Contamination can result from a disaster (oil spill) or the slow, downriver flow of agricultural, municipal or industrial discharge.
What are the common Types of Water Contamination?
The agricultural sector is the biggest consumer of global fresh-water resources since farming and livestock production consumes approximately seventy percent of the earth’s surface water supplies.
The agricultural sector is also a serious water polluter. Across the world, agriculture is the prime cause of water degradation. Agricultural pollution is the top source of contamination in streams cum rivers, in wetlands, and in lakes. It’s also a major contributor of contamination in estuaries as well as groundwater.
Every time when due to rainfall, pesticides, fertilizers, and animal waste from farms as well as livestock operations wash away nutrients as well as pathogens (bacteria / viruses) into the waterways. Nutrient pollution is caused by excess nitrogen and phosphorus in water/air.
This is the prime threat to water quality worldwide and this pollution can cause algal blooms. This is a toxic soup of blue-green algae which can cause harm to people as well as wildlife.
Sewage and wastewater
Used water is supposed to be wastewater. It comes from our toilets, showers and sinks(sewage) and from industrial, commercial, as well as agricultural activities (metals/solvents/ toxic sludge). The term waste water shall also include stormwater runoff. This happens when rainfall carries road salts, chemicals, grease, oils, and debris from impermeable surfaces into the waterways.
As per the United Nations, in excess of eighty percent of the world’s wastewater flows back into the environment without being treated or reused. This figure is in excess of ninety five percent in some least-developed countries. In the world, wastewater treatment facilities process about 100s of billion gallons of wastewater per day.
These facilities reduce the amount of pollutants such as nitrogens, phosphorus, and pathogens in sewage, as well as heavy metals/toxic chemicals in industrial waste, prior to discharging the treated waters back into the waterways. However, there are billions of gallons of untreated wastewater each year being released by aged/overwhelmed sewage treatment plants.
Consumers are responsible for the vast majority of oil pollution in the seas. This includes oil and gasoline drippage from millions of cars/trucks every day. Moreover, approximately half of the estimated one million tons of oil that makes its way into marine environments each year comes from land-based sources such as cities, factories, and farms.
At sea, tanker spills account for about ten percent of the oil in waters around the world. Normal operations of the shipping industry (legal /illegal discharges) contribute about one-third of the spills. Oil is also naturally released from beneath the ocean floor through seeps (fractures in the earth’s crust).
Radioactive waste is the pollution that emits radiation beyond a particular level. It’s generated as a consequence of uranium mining, functioning of nuclear power plants, and the production cum testing of military weapons.
Various universities and hospitals that use radioactive materials for research as well as medicine also adds to the pollution. This poses a major challenge since radioactive waste can persist in the surrounding environment for thousands of years. Accidentally released or improperly disposed of contaminants can pollute the groundwater, surface water, as well as marine resources.
What are the different effects of Water Pollution?
On human health
Water pollution kills human lives resulting in millions of deaths every year. Contaminated water can cause illness. Every year, unsafe water gets about one billion people sick. And low-income class of people are disproportionately at greater risk because their homes are often closest to the polluted water bodies from the industries.
Waterborne pathogens, (disease-causing bacteria/viruses from human/animal waste), are a major reason for illness from contaminated drinking water. Diseases spread by unsafe water include cholera, jaundice, and typhoid. Even in advanced nations, accidental/illegal releases from sewage treatment facilities, and runoff from farms/urban areas, contribute harmful pathogens to waterways. Thousands of people get sickened every year by severe form of pneumonia contracted from water sources like cooling towers as well as piped water.
Apart from lead contamination, a wide range of chemical pollutants (heavy metals such as arsenic, mercury, pesticides, nitrate fertilizers) are getting into our water supplies. These toxins, once ingested into the human body can cause a host of health issues, such as cancer, altered brain function, hormonal disruption. Children and pregnant women are primarily at risk due this contamination.
Swimming in contaminated water can pose a health risk. Every year, millions contract health issues such as pink eye, skin rashes, hepatitis and respiratory infections from sewage-laden coastal waters.
On the environment
A complex web of animals, plants, bacteria, as well as fungi interact, directly or indirectly, with each other so as to thrive in a healthy ecosystem. Harmful effects on any of these organisms can create a ripple chain effect that can jeopardise the entire aquatic environments.
Water pollution results in an algal bloom in a lake or marine environment. This proliferation of newly introduced nutrients stimulates plant as well as algae growth, which in turn decreases oxygen levels in the water. This dearth of oxygen is known as eutrophication. This causes suffocation in plants and animals and can result in creation of “dead zones,” wherein waters are devoid of life. In some cases, these harmful algal blooms can also produce neurotoxins that harm wildlife, from whales to sea turtles.
Chemicals/heavy metals from industrial/municipal wastewater contaminate waterways as well. These contaminants are extremely toxic to aquatic life. They reduce an organism’s life span and ability to reproduce. These make their way up the food chain as predators eat prey. That’s how tuna/other big fish accumulate high quantities of toxins, such as mercury.
Marine ecosystems can also get threatened by marine debris, which can considerably strangle, suffocate, and starve aquatic animals. Much of this solid debris, such as plastic bags/soda cans, gets swept into sewers/storm drains. These move eventually out to sea, turning the oceans into trash soup. These tend to form floating garbage patches. Discarded fishing gear/debris are responsible for harming hundreds of different species of marine life.
Meanwhile, ocean acidification is making life tougher for shellfish as well as coral to survive in the ocean. Though the oceans absorb about a quarter of the carbon pollution created each year (burning fossil fuels), oceans are becoming more acidic. This process makes it harder for shellfish and other species to build shells. This can also impact the nervous system of clownfish, sharks, whales, and other marine life.
What can one do to Prevent Water Pollution?
There are some simple ways to prevent or reduce or limit water contamination:
1.Reduce plastic consumption; reuse plastic or recycle plastic where possible.
2.Proper disposal of chemical cleaners, oils, non-biodegradable items to keep them from moving into the drain.
3.Proper maintenance of the car to prevent leakage of oil, antifreeze, or coolant.
4.Landscaping which reduces runoff
5. Avoid application of pesticides as well as herbicides.