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What's in our water?

Report warns of growing

'invisible' crisis of pollution
Climate emergency and population growth blamed for deteriorating water quality,
with ‘cocktail of chemicals’ changing as countries become richer

The Guardian Peter Beaumont

20th August 2019

Toxic pollution from fertilisers and industrial

industry are key contributors.

Photograph: A.M. Ahad/AP

The planet is facing a mounting and “invisible” water pollution crisis, according to a hard-
hitting World Bank report, which claims the issue is responsible for a one-third reduction in
potential economic growth in the most heavily affected areas.

The study, which assembled the world’s largest database of water pollution, assesses how a
combination of bacteria, sewage, chemicals and plastics suck oxygen from water supplies and
transform water into poison for people and ecosystems.
While much international attention has been focused on the question of water quantity, not least
as the planet warms, a secondary impact of the climate emergency has been its effect on water

Because of the huge number of different pollutants entering the environment, researchers focused
on the key measures for water quality laid down in the UN’s sustainable development goals, in
particular nutrient loads, salt balances, and the overall environmental health.

The authors of the report employed a variety of technologies to study the problem, including
satellite imaging of major algae blooms and artificial intelligence to assess the data they were

In particular researchers looked at a key measure called biological oxygen demand (BOD) to assess
how much organic pollution is in water, using it as an indicator of overall water quality.

Algae bloom from pollution can

be toxic, posing a threat to
wildlife and people.

Photograph: Sam
Panthaky/AFP/Getty Images

The researchers noted that when BOD crosses a certain threshold, GDP growth in areas affected by
the problem drops by as much as a third because of the impact on health, agriculture and

Although issues with water pollution affect both rich and poor countries, the researchers suggest
that developing countries have the least resources to deal with the issue.

A key contributor to poor water quality is nitrogen, which, applied as fertiliser in agriculture,
eventually enters rivers, lakes and oceans where it transforms into nitrates.

Early exposure of children to nitrates affects their growth and brain development, impacting their
health and adult earning potential.

The run-off and release into water from every additional kilogram of nitrogen fertiliser per hectare
can increase the level of childhood stunting by as much as 19% percent and reduce future adult
earnings by as much as 2%, compared with those who are not exposed.
Portable water pipes mix
with sewage in Basra, Iraq.
Developing countries have
fewer resources to deal with

Photograph: Nabil al-


Researchers also looked at the growing issue of salinity – salt contamination – blamed on more
intense droughts, storm surges and rising water extraction. They estimated that at current levels
its impact on agriculture means that the food lost because of saline water across the world would
feed 170 million people.

The report notes that even wealthy countries still have serious issues with water pollution.

“Even high-income economies with well-resourced institutions find themselves unable to cope
with the challenges,” the authors report, citing the notorious contamination of the drinking water
supply in Flint in the US.

Samples of water from a resident’s

home in Flint.

Photograph: Ryan Garza/AP

“Four decades after the passing of the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act, over
100,000 residents in Flint were exposed to lead in their drinking water.

“It required a national movement and three years for water to return to acceptable safety levels,
but not before potentially thousands of children had been exposed to the irreversible harm caused
by lead poisoning,” said the report.
“In Europe, countries such as France, Germany and Greece have been fined by the European Court
of Justice for violating the regulatory limits for nitrates. Almost a third of monitoring stations in
Germany present levels of nitrates exceeding the European Union’s limits.”

“When it comes to what’s the cause of this problem, there are two forces,” Richard Damania, a
World Bank senior economic advisor and a lead author of the report, told the Guardian.

“The first is climate change, which affects both water quantity and quality. The second is
population growth and production. The debate has always focused on the issue of quantity, but it
becomes obvious when you look below the surface that there are thousands of pollutants.

Rich nations are not immune

from the water pollution crisis.
Green algae has appeared on
some of France’s beaches.

Photograph: Loïc
Venance/AFP/Getty Images

“We find that water pollution is a problem that affects both rich and poor countries, however the
cocktail of chemicals changes as countries develop. In poor countries it is faecal bacteria and as
GDP increases then nitrogen [from fertilisers] becomes the issue.”

“Clean water is a key factor for economic growth,” added the World Bank Group president, David

“Deteriorating water quality is stalling economic growth, worsening health conditions, reducing
food production, and exacerbating poverty in many countries.

“Their governments must take urgent actions to help tackle water pollution so that countries can
grow faster in equitable and environmentally sustainable