Water is Life
By Farah Theodore
It is undisputable that water sustains life on earth and as priceless a resource as it is, it is limited in quantity and we have to be responsible in how we use it. There is great concern about water security which focuses mainly on water quantity and availability, however, a key aspect which is easily overlooked is water quality.
A recently released 2019 report entitled 'Quality Unknown: The invisible water crisis' by Richard Damania, Sébastien Desbureaux, Aude-Sophie Rodella, Jason Russ, and Esha Zaveri, brings to light valid concerns about hidden dangers in water.
Water quality issues aren't limited to developing countries, it is prevalent in developed nations as well though in differing ways. It has been observed that as countries develop the types of chemicals and vectors they are faced with change – for example fecal bacteria to nitrogen, pharmaceuticals and plastics. Water pollution endangers economic growth and water quality is a problem that grows in complexity, according to the report, as prosperity expands and new contaminants emerge. In the USA alone, the EPA receives manufacturing notices for more than 1,000 new chemicals each year (EPA, 2019).
There are various contributors to this situation namely; variable rainfall patterns due to climate change, industrialization, agriculture and land use changes. Continued changes in land use for urban areas and agriculture are unavoidable and policies should make provision to protect water resources. As noted in the report, water quality is an issue that needs to be politically prioritized and it should be treated as an urgent concern for public health, the economy and ecosystems. Land use policies that preserve critical forests, wetlands, and natural biomass are key to protecting water supplies.
Intensification of agriculture has been seen as a major contributor to declining water quality such as in the use of wastewater and fertilizers. German scientists Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch invented a process for converting atmospheric nitrogen from the air into ammonia, a form of reactive nitrogen, which is also a synthetic fertilizer for plants (Harford 2017). This discovery earned the scientists a Nobel Prize as it transformed agriculture, led to a dramatic increase in yields, and supported the lives of several billion people who otherwise would have died prematurely or never been born (Erisman et al. 2008; Stewart et al. 2005).
Often-times, the nitrogen that is used in fertilizer ends up in rivers, lakes and oceans where it transforms into nitrates; fertilizing blooms of algae that deplete oxygen, creating hypoxia or dead zones where little can survive. The fallout from nitrogen pollution is considered one of the most important environmental issues of the 21st century and is one of the largest global externalities facing the world (Kanter 2018; Keeler et al. 2016). Also, the FAO states that nitrates are the most common chemical contaminant found in groundwater aquifers. Nitrates in water are responsible for fatally inflicting Blue Baby Syndrome which starves infants' bodies of oxygen. The 'Quality Unknown' report finds that those who survive the consequences of early exposure to nitrates can be condemned to long-term damages throughout their lives- they grow up shorter and earn less than they would have otherwise. Stunting is a red flag indicator for the risk of physical and cognitive deficits.
The agricultural sector is affected by salinity that hampers productivity. Saline waters and soils are spreading worldwide due to increasing rates of water extraction, droughts and rainfall shortages, sea-level rise and poorly managed irrigation systems. The report reveals that enough food is lost due to saline waters each year to feed 170 million people every day – that's equivalent to a country the size of Bangladesh.
How important is this? When Flint, Michigan, switched its primary water source to the Flint River in 2014, the river's high salt load, combined with lack of corrosion-control treatment, stripped lead from the city's aging water pipe infrastructure, which leached into the water pipes (Pieper et al. 2018; Pieper, Tang, and Edwards 2015). High levels of salt are also associated with increased concentrations of contaminants such as fluoride, boron, selenium, and arsenic (Vengosh 2003).
Wastewater irrigation is another practice that has the potential to permanently contaminate groundwater supplies. Once groundwater supplies are exposed, especially in the case of nutrients and heavy metals, treatment can become infeasible (Maheshwari, Singh, and Thoradeniya 2016).
The three main points to consider in tackling this issue are: data collection, prevention and treatment. Reliable, accurate and comprehensive information is needed the world over to facilitate new insights, evidence-based decision-making and enable consumers to make better choices. In addition, legislation and well-designed regulations that are effectively implemented and enforced for firms and individuals to adhere to water quality guidelines. Water that is already polluted needs to be treated for it is vital of a society's health, food security and economy.