Water pollution happens when toxic substances enter water bodies such as lakes, rivers, oceans and so on, getting dissolved in them, lying suspended in the water or depositing on the bed. This degrades the quality of water.
Not only does this spell disaster for aquatic ecosystems, the pollutants also seep through and reach the groundwater, which might end up in our households as contaminated water we use in our daily activities, including drinking.
Sources and effects of water pollution
Water pollution can be caused in a number of ways, one of the most polluting being city sewage and industrial waste discharge. Indirect sources of water pollution include contaminants that enter the water supply from soils or groundwater systems and from the atmosphere via the rain.
Soils and groundwaters contain the residue of human agricultural practices and also improperly disposed of industrial wastes.
Types of water pollutants
Pollutants can be of varying kinds: organic, inorganic, radioactive and so on. In fact, the list of possible water contaminants is just too vast to be listed here.
From big pieces of garbage to invisible chemicals, a wide range of pollutants ends up in our planet's lakes, rivers, streams, groundwater, and eventually the oceans. Water pollution—along with drought, inefficiency, and an exploding population—has contributed to a freshwater crisis, threatening the sources we rely on for drinking water and other critical needs.
Water pollution causes
Water pollution can come from a variety of sources. Pollution can enter water directly, through both legal and illegal discharges from factories, for example, or imperfect water treatment plants. Spills and leaks from oil pipelines or hydraulic fracturing (fracking) operations can degrade water supplies. Wind, storms, and littering—especially of plastic waste—can also send debris into waterways.
drinking water pollution can happen via the pipes themselves if the water is not properly treated, as happened in the case of lead contamination in Flint, Michigan, and other towns. Another drinking water contaminant, arsenic, can come from naturally occurring deposits but also from industrial waste.
Virtually all types of water pollution are harmful to the health of humans and animals. Water pollution may not damage our health immediately but can be harmful after long term exposure. Different forms of pollutants affect the health of animals in different ways:
Heavy metals from industrial processes can accumulate in nearby lakes and rivers. These are toxic to marine life such as fish and shellfish, and subsequently to the humans who eat them. Heavy metals can slow development; result in birth defects and some are carcinogenic.
Industrial waste often contains many toxic compounds that damage the health of aquatic animals and those who eat them. Some of the toxins in industrial waste may only have a mild effect whereas other can be fatal. They can cause immune suppression, reproductive failure or acute poisoning.
Microbial pollutants from sewage often result in infectious diseases that infect aquatic life and terrestrial life through drinking water. Microbial water pollution is a major problem in the developing world, with diseases such as cholera and typhoid fever being the primary cause of infant mortality.
Organic matter and nutrients causes an increase in aerobic algae and depletes oxygen from the water column. This causes the suffocation of fish and other aquatic organisms.
Sulfate particles from acid rain can cause harm the health of marine life in the rivers and lakes it contaminates, and can result in mortality.
Suspended particles in freshwater reduces the quality of drinking water for humans and the aquatic environment for marine life. Suspended particles can often reduce the amount of sunlight penetrating the water, disrupting the growth of photosynthetic plants and micro-organisms.
Dangers to our Economy
Water pollution can be damaging to the economy as it can be expensive to treat and prevent contamination. Waste that does not break down quickly accumulates in the Earth’s waters and eventually makes its way to the oceans.
Water pollution can be prevented by stopping pollutants from contaminating nearby waters. There are a number of water treatments to prevent pollution such as:
These simple techniques cost money to maintain, but prevention is much cheaper than cleaning up water pollution that has already occurred. The cost of a pollution clean-up depends on many factors:
The location of the pollution is important in determining how much the clean-up will cost. If the contamination is in an area that is easy to get to, then the clean up cost will be cheaper.
The contamination size also needs to be considered, the larger the area of contamination, the more expensive the cost of the clean-up.
The type of pollutant may also have an effect on the clean-up cost, some pollutants are more difficult to clean up than others, and therefore more expensive.
Dangers to our Environment
There are many different types of water pollution and all have a different adverse effect on the environment.
Heavy metals from industrial processes can accumulate in nearby lakes and rivers. These are toxic to marine life such as fish and shellfish, and can affect the rest of the food chain. This means that entire animal communities can be badly affected by this type of pollutant.
Industrial waste often contains many toxic compounds that damage the health of aquatic animals and those who eat them. Some toxins affect the reproductive success of marine life and can therefore disrupt the community structure of an aquatic environment.
Microbial pollutants from sewage often result in infectious diseases that infect aquatic life and terrestrial life through drinking water. This often increases the number of mortalities seen within an environment.
Organic matter and nutrients causes an increase in aerobic algae and depletes oxygen from the water column. This is called eutrophication and causes the suffocation of fish and other aquatic organisms.
Sulfate particles from acid rain change the pH of water making it more acidic, this damages the health of marine life in the rivers and lakes it contaminates, and often increases the number of mortalities within an environment.
Suspended particles can often reduce the amount of sunlight penetrating the water, disrupting the growth of photosynthetic plants and micro-organisms. This has subsequent effects on the rest of the aquatic community that depend on these organisms to survive.
Access to water and sanitation are recognized by the United Nations as human rights, reflecting the fundamental nature of these basics in every person’s life. Lack of access to safe, sufficient and affordable water, sanitation and hygiene facilities has a devastating effect on the health, dignity and prosperity of billions of people, and has significant consequences for the realization of other human rights. People are rights-holders and States are duty-bearers of providing water and sanitation services. Rights-holders can claim their rights and duty-bearers must guarantee the rights to water and sanitation equally and without discrimination.
Challenges and Opportunities
International human rights law demands a specific focus on those people who do not fully enjoy their rights, leading to explicitly ‘pro-poor’ development in many countries. It also requires a commitment to progressively reduce inequalities by tackling the discrimination and stigmatization that can lead to people being excluded from, or marginalized in relation to, water and sanitation access. The ‘human rights-based approach’ stresses the correspondence between rights and obligations, providing a framework for Member States and other organizations that aims to ensure that respect for human rights are integrated into development plans at all levels.
The water supply for each person must be sufficient and continuous for personal and domestic uses. These uses ordinarily include drinking, personal sanitation, washing of clothes, food preparation, personal and household hygiene.
The water required for each personal or domestic use must be safe, therefore free from micro-organisms, chemical substances and radiological hazards that constitute a threat to a person’s health. Measures of drinking-water safety are usually defined by national and/or local standards for drinking-water quality.
Water should be of an acceptable colour, odour and taste for each personal or domestic use. All water facilities and services must be culturally appropriate and sensitive to gender, lifecycle and privacy requirements.
Everyone has the right to a water and sanitation service that is physically accessible within, or in the immediate vicinity of the household, educational institution, workplace or health institution.
Water, and water facilities and services, must be affordable for all.