Study Shows Global Decline of Water Quality

April 20, 2015
Results indicate that up to 1 in 3 people will be exposed to a high risk of water pollution in 2050

According to a global study by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and Veolia, the world is on a path toward rapidly deteriorating water quality in many countries. The study indicates that up to 1 in 3 people will be exposed to a high risk of water pollution in 2050 from increased amounts of nitrogen and phosphorous. Up to 1 in 5 people will be exposed to a high risk of water pollution reflected by increased levels of biochemical oxygen demand (BOD). 

“The global water crisis is not science fiction,” said Ed Pinero, senior vice president, sustainability, Veolia North America. “The evidence of drought in the United States and in many parts of the world—lack of rain or snowfall, drying rivers and lakes, water shortages, and water restrictions—is real enough. Now we’re seeing how the impacts of high levels of organic pollutants can affect our health and society.” 

Even using the most optimistic socio-economic models, water quality is projected to rapidly deteriorate over the next several decades which, in turn, will increase risks to human health, economic development and thousands of aquatic ecosystems in developed and developing economies alike. The new study follows previous research conducted by the two organizations indicating that half of world’s population (52% of the global population or 4.8 billion people), approximately half (49%) of global grain production and 45% of total GDP ($63 trillion) will be at risk due to water stress by 2050 unless more sustainable water resource management practices are adopted.

“Globally, more people will be living in areas at a high risk of water pollution in 2050 due to increased loadings of pollutants,” said Claudia Ringler, deputy division director of IFPRI’s Environment and Production Technology Div. “Our study examined the effects of increased nitrogen, phosphorous and BOD as human population, agriculture activity and economic development accelerates. We also examined potential impacts through the lens of established climate change models. While these nutrients occur naturally in the environment and, in fact, help sustain aquatic life, too much of a good thing is bad. The study’s results should be alarming to scientists, policy makers and citizens alike. Already, too many people are exposed to high risks associated with these pollutants.”

A major consequence of excessive nitrogen and phosphorous in water bodies is eutrophication, when algae grow faster than normal, killing other aquatic life by depleting oxygen. In addition, the presence of nitrogen-based compounds in drinking water can be harmful to human health. High levels of nitrates can have particularly harmful effects on infants through the so-called “blue-baby” syndrome. Prolonged intake of high levels of nitrates by adults can also lead to gastric problems.

Ringler says the study also demonstrates how water quality issues compound water quantity problems and amplify the need to simultaneously address both issues.

The study links and layers socio-economic projections, climate change predictions and projections for agricultural production with biophysical water quality modeling developed by IFPRI and Veolia. Regions most affected by the studied pollutants (BOD, nitrogen and phosphorous) are densely populated, large agricultural production centers.

“The massive algal bloom in Lake Erie that triggered serious health concerns last year over safe drinking water is a very real example,” Pinero said. “When both water quantity and water quality are at risk, it’s a recipe for even greater challenges because poor water quality further reduces the amount of available water.” 

Pinero points out that while nitrogen and phosphorous are already a serious problem in many waterways, the study indicates nitrogen and phosphorous loadings will increase substantially through 2050.

“Most of us think that water pollution is the result of chemicals,” Pinero said. “In the case of nitrogen and phosphorous, both are naturally occurring and appear to be almost harmless until there’s a shock to the system.”

Pinero says that as population grows and the quality of life improves, demand for water, food and sanitation will increase.

“These demands, especially with growing urbanization, will lead to increased discharges of nitrogen, phosphorus and elevated levels of BOD. A polluted water source is almost like having no water resource due to the high chemical, energy and treatment costs associated with making that water available and useable again. The good news is that there are many solutions stemming from technology, best practices and social behavior that give hope to minimizing the adverse impacts,” Pinero said.

Solutions exist that can improve both social and ecological resilience. Greater adoption of sustainable agricultural methods can help—including enhanced nutrient use efficiency, phased out fertilizer subsidies, no-till or reduced tillage and other conservation measures, and closing the nutrient cycle.

Sustainable solutions also exist for cities and industry, including more aggressive investment in wastewater treatment, increased recycling and reuse, green infrastructure, the establishment of markets for nutrient credit trading, governance models based more on watersheds and less on traditional political borders, and improved home design to minimize pollution.

Source: Veolia, International Food Policy Research Institute

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