Every other week we read of a new water pollution scandal, often after people fall sick, but sometimes because of large-scale fish die-off or other adverse environmental impacts. Can we turn the tide of growing water pollution around?
Human sources of water degradation include household and industrial waste, agricultural chemicals, and livestock waste, which all end up in water bodies and cause pollution if untreated or not managed appropriately. As a result of insufficient action or plain inaction, today, approximately 1 in 8 or 650 million people live in areas where water quality risks are high due to elevated levels of biochemical oxygen demand (BOD), and 1/6th and 1/4th of the world’s population lives in river basins where water quality risks are high due to excessive nitrogen and phosphorous loadings.
Increased concentrations of dissolved organic carbon can also create problems in the production of safe drinking water if chlorination is used. Too much nitrogen and phosphorous in water lead to eutrophication, killing aquatic life by depleting oxygen. The presence of nitrogen-based compounds in drinking water can be harmful to human health. This alarming trend calls for a rethinking of our current development pathway. Have the global community and key actors woken up to these alarming trends? Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6 on water includes a specific target for water pollution۔
This said, several solutions exist to address this challenge: governments are called to lead the effort to regulate, monitor and enforce water quality standards, the private sector, city administrations and farmers associations are called to implement their own water quality controls, to help ensure the future of our environment and human health. In agriculture, higher nutrient use efficiency can substantially reduce pollution loads while public and private sector agricultural research into nutrient-use efficiency by crops needs to be strengthened. Farmer associations should provide information and advice to their members for other measures that improve fertilizer management, with practices such as
- Crop rotations with nitrogen-fixing (cover) crops
- No-till or reduced tillage and other conservation measures that can dramatically reduce erosion and thus protect water bodies from the adverse effects of P and N runoff
- Precision agriculture methods.
- Yield monitors to apply fertilizers where they are needed most or generate the highest yields
o Replacement of furrow irrigation with drip, which allows direct fertilizer application to the crops and their root systems
Without significant attention to this looming crisis, the future deterioration of water quality poses a major threat to aquatic environments and the people that depend on them.