“We never know the worth of water till the well is dry.”
Water Pollution: Causes, Effects & Solutions
Water pollution is the contamination of water environments like oceans, rivers, lakes or groundwater. Contaminants are introduced into the natural environmental system which is often caused by human behavior.
Water pollution is a big environmental problem since it not only affects animals and plants, but also our daily lives in the form of polluted lakes and rivers which in turn can lead to contaminated drinking water.
Types of Water Pollution
- Pollution of rivers
- Pollution of lakes
- Marine pollution
- Groundwater contamination
Pollution of rivers
Rivers are usually polluted through three major factors, namely industry, domestic and agriculture. This is due to the fact that each of them is usually located quite near rivers for historical reasons. This causes problems since farmers put their fertilizers on their fields.
Due to heavy rainfalls, this fertilizer may be washed through the soil and eventually end up in rivers. This can cause a dramatic increase in phosphate and nitrate concentration. In turn, this leads to an increase in algae.
At the end of the lifespan of an alga, it is decomposed by bacteria which grow exponentially and use up quite a lot of oxygen.
At one point, there is too much algae contamination and thus due to a lack of oxygen, fishes and other animals die. Another source of polluted rivers is the chemical industry.
Waste products from chemical processes are often accidentally or even intentionally disposed into rivers, including toxic substances like cyanide, lead or mercury.
This contamination through chemical substances is also a huge source of river contamination and destroys many river environments.
Pollution of lakes
Analogous to the pollution of rivers, the main sources for lake pollution are the excessive use of fertilizers and metals from industrial waste disposal. Moreover, lakes are also polluted through natural sediments like silt and clay which in large amounts can become a vast pollution problem.
Since rivers end in lakes and oceans, they carry their contaminants in these environments. Oceans pollution thus is caused by the previous pollution of rivers and lakes and has similar pollution sources.
Groundwater pollution occurs from man-made products such as oil, gasoline, chemicals road salts and other human-made substances get eventually through the soil into the groundwater.
These substances include, among others, motor oil, substances from mining activities, toxic chemicals and untreated waste.
How can Water Pollution be measured?
Water contamination can be measured through an analysis of water samples. Chemical, biological and physical examinations can be performed.
To ensure good water quality, there has to be a profound control mechanism which requires appropriate infrastructure, including sewage, wastewater, industrial and agricultural wastewater treatment plants to protect water bodies from contaminated wastewater.
Nature-based measures may be another approach to mitigate water contamination.
Which Countries struggle with Water Pollution?
There are many countries in the world with bad drinking water conditions. The worst conditions can be found in Mexico, Congo, Pakistan, Bhutan, Ghana, Nepal, Cambodia, Nigeria, Ethiopia and Uganda. As of 2017, almost 40% of people in Uganda need to travel more than 30 minutes to access safe drinking water.
How many People die from Water Pollution?
According to an estimate of the world health organization, approximately 3.6 million people die from water-related diseases a year.
Development of Water Pollution over Time
With the advent of the industrial revolution, water pollution increased dramatically. This is mainly due to the fact that factories released pollutants directly in rivers. Even today, in developing countries, 70% of industrial waste is still just dumped untreated into lakes and rivers.
Causes of Water Pollution
- Water pollution caused by natural phenomena
- Water pollution caused by human behavior
- Industrial Waste
- Private Waste
- Oil leakages
- Fossil fuels
- Increasing meat consumption
- Chemical fertilizers
- Leak of sewer lines
- Radioactive garbage
- Leakage of landfills
- Urban development
- Population growth
- Animal waste
- Underground storage leaks
- Airplane fuel drops
Water pollution caused by natural phenomena
But there are also natural causes of water pollution. Natural sources of water pollution can be volcanoes, storms or earthquakes, which can have a dramatic impact on the ecological status of water.
Water pollution caused by human behavior
There are many sources of water pollution caused by humans, including the disposal of industrial waste and sewage, littering, using harmful and/or excessive fertilizers or dumping industrial waste into rivers and lakes.
Moreover, the improper disposal of batteries, personal care products and household chemicals contribute to water contamination.
Wastewater and sewage are a by-product of daily life and thus produced by each household. It is produced through various activities in our daily lives, like using dishwashers, toilets soaps and detergents.
Wastewater contains chemicals and bacteria which are harmful to human and environmental health. Germs in the sewage can cause severe health problems, which in the worst case even cause death.
Moreover, when these germs make their way into rivers or lakes, animals also may get infected. They can act as carriers for the potentially deadly diseases and thus spread them back to humans through wildlife interactions or even only from consuming animals like infected deer.
Industries located near rivers and lakes are a huge problem for water quality. Since they want to get rid of their industrial by-products, chemicals like mercury, asbestos, sulfur, nitrates and many others are often dumped into nearby water. Since rivers often end in oceans, this problem impacts the whole worldwide water system.
Due to this contamination, there can be a serious adverse impact on water animals and in turn even on us consuming fish or other seafood. This is a problem that is most prevalent in developing countries. Developed countries usually have strict environmental standards to prevent this kind of environmental pollution.
Industrial waste is a much bigger factor when it comes to water pollution than private waste. However, if households do not dispose of their garbage properly, pollutants can get into the groundwater. Thus, it is necessary even for private persons to pay attention to how to dispose of different forms of garbage properly.
When miners extract gold, diamonds, coal or other elements, they have to take great care not to pollute the groundwater. Many of the raw minerals are containing chemicals that are harmful to the environment. If not disposed of properly, these by-products can cause severe contaminations of rivers and lakes as well as of the groundwater.
Moreover, in some countries, the use of toxic substances to extract metals is a big danger to the people operating with them and also for the groundwater. For example, there are people in Africa extracting gold with the help of mercury, not even wearing gloves.
Apart from the deadly consequences for the workers, if the mercury is not disposed of properly, it would have an enormous severe impact on the water cycle.
Accidental oil leakages are a huge problem for marine water conditions. If due to an accident, a ship that is carrying large amounts of oil starts to leak, this impacts almost every sea creature in a severe adverse way.
The bad part about oil is that it doesn’t dissolve in water, so it basically will last forever and cause health problems for fish and other animals.
A part of our daily garbage is not burned but is carried to other countries which then dispose of this garbage into the sea. This process is devastating to the whole ecological system since items like plastic and rubber take more than a century to decompose.
If this process is not stopped soon, this will have dramatic consequences for ocean animals and thus in turn for us consuming fish and other seafood.
The burning of fossil fuels leads to acid rain, which in turn spills into rivers, lakes, oceans and the groundwater. By no longer using fossil fuels and transit to renewable energies, water contamination could be vastly mitigated.
Increasing meat consumption
Our worldwide increasing appetite for meat is indirectly causing water pollution. Since our farm animals have to be fed, higher consumption of meat means a higher demand for animal feed which means a higher level of used fertilizer in order to be able to meet this demand which indirectly translates into a higher concentration of nitrate and phosphate in our groundwater.
For farmers, using chemical fertilizers in order to increase crop yields is considered the worldwide standard today. However, the chemicals contained in the fertilizer can sink in the groundwater and cause severe damage to water conditions.
Similar to chemical fertilizers, the use of pesticides increases the yield of farmers since it protects the crops of plants from animals. However, these pesticides often contain harmful substances that will get in the ecosystem sooner or later and thus foster water pollution.
Leaking sewer lines
A leak in or even a broken sewer line can pollute the groundwater to a significant degree. Leakages in the sewer line may often not be detected for a while and can contaminate the groundwater for this timespan until the leakages are fixed.
Radioactive waste is a by-product in the production of nuclear energy. It takes a high level of caution to store nuclear waste in a safe manner. The disposal of nuclear waste is quite difficult and takes enormous effort.
Thus, it is quite expensive to safely dispose of the nuclear garbage. Mistakes in the disposal process of nuclear waste can result in severe damage to the ecosystem through the nuclear contamination of the groundwater.
Leakage of landfills
Leakages of landfills can result in the pollution of water in a severe manner. There are many toxic substances that can flow through the leakages and thus contaminate the groundwater.
In our daily lives, our standards and entitlement continually grow. We need the hippest clothes, trendy food and other amenities. The downside to this is that we dispose of things that are still working but are not trendy anymore quite faster than decades ago.
This leads to a huge waste of resources, since the production of material things causes huge water and resource demand.
Thus, more fertilizer and other chemicals have to be used in order to meet the demand for resources which in turn leads to increased contamination of our water supply.
Similar to the urban development issue, the growth in population leads to an increase in demand for food and other things for daily life. Thus, an increase in population is likely to cause an increase in water pollution if we do not adapt properly and develop an overall strategy that on the one hand meets the demand for material goods and on the other hand is in line with sustainable ecological behavior.
Animal waste is a natural product. However, when it rains, it reaches rivers and can under some circumstances to diseases that may impact humans in the form of Cholera or Diarrhea.
Underground storage leaks
Oil and other substances are often carried through pipelines. If this pipelines leak, oil and other harmful substances can get in the groundwater and cause an adverse impact on the water quality.
Airplane fuel drops
Prior to the landing, airplanes usually drop their fuel if there is still too much of it in the plane’s tank. This drop of fuel causes air pollution which in turn can harm water quality through contaminated rain.
Effects of Water Pollution
- Effects on humans
- Effects on animals
- Effects on plants
- Effects on water animals and plants
- Disruption of the food chain
- Destruction of whole ecosystems
Effects on humans
Water pollution poses severe threats to humanity. Since water is crucial for all life on earth, a lack of pure drinking water could result in a decrease in population numbers. Moreover, if water becomes a scarce resource, people are likely to fight for their share and this may even lead to serious conflicts.
This problem will be especially severe in countries that are heavily affected by the global warming problem. In these countries, the water shortage will be a quite severe problem.
If we continue to pollute our rivers, lakes and oceans, the time will come when water will be an extremely precious resource and prices for water will increase dramatically.
Effects on animals
Animals are also severely affected by water pollution. In contrast to humans, animals are not able to recycle or treat water but they still need it to survive. Thus, they have to consume the contaminated water and risk to get sick.
If the water is too polluted, local animals may either move to other places or if they are not able to move will eventually die from the contaminated water and its adverse health effects.
Effects on plants
Plants can also be affected by water pollution. Since the water system is connected, pollution in rivers can transfer into the pollution of lakes and the groundwater. Plants that grow in a contaminated area may use this polluted water and die off.
Moreover, if farmers use the contaminated water for their fields, the plants will suffer and therefore crop yields may decrease.
Effects on water animals and plants
There are also significant adverse effects on water animals and plants from water pollution. Rivers, lakes or oceans are the natural living habitat for countless animals and plants.
These animals and plants are usually quite sensitive to their living conditions. If their living environment gets polluted, they may not be able to adapt properly and eventually die due to the contaminants.
Disruption of the food chain
Moreover, water pollution can also have adverse effects on the food chain. Since we consume fish and other water animals, we also indirectly consume the pollutants which these fish have consumed. Thus, we could also be contaminated by eating contaminated fish.
The consumption of polluted water can cause many serious health conditions. Among others, it can lead to cholera, hepatitis or typhoid fever. Thus, water pollution poses a serious threat to the health of humans as well as to the health of animals.
Water pollution can also lead to the eutrophication of lakes or oceans, meaning that the growth of algae will be supported. Since algae need certain chemicals and nutrients to grow, water contaminated with those nutrients will give algae the opportunity to spread.
Destruction of whole ecosystems
Ecosystems are quite sensitive to changes in their natural conditions. Even small changes can lead to big effects. If the level of water pollution increases, some animals and plants may die off which in turn could cause chain reactions regarding predator and prey animals and therefore harm the ecosystem in a significant way.
Solutions to the Water Pollution Problem
- Responsible use of fertilizer and pesticides
- Discourage firms from disposing of their trash in rivers, lakes or oceans
- Replace fossil fuels by renewable energies
- Minimize stormwater runoff
- Reduce meat consumption
- Support other countries to improve their technologies
- Convince people
Responsible use of fertilizer and pesticides
Through the reduction in the use of fertilizers and pesticides, the contamination of the groundwater through nitrates and phosphates can be significantly reduced. Thus, we have to make sure that farmers are aware that their efforts can be a big contribution in order to mitigate water pollution.
Discourage firms from disposing of their trash in rivers, lakes or oceans
We have to make sure that firms do not dispose of their industrial by-products in rivers or other water environments. There are already strict regulations in developed countries, but this principle should also be standard in developing countries in order to solve our water pollution problem.
Replace fossil fuels by renewable energies
Private people and firms are getting more and more aware that fossil fuels have to be replaced by renewable energies. This is the right approach in order to reduce water pollution from acid rain.
Minimize stormwater runoff
Water pollution from stormwater runoff and the resulting sediment pollution can be avoided by private persons as well as by big firms. Sediment pollution may not seem to be a big problem for you, but it has a significant ecological impact.
Sediment in an aquatic environment can change the water temperature, screens out sunlight, disrupts the food chain, inhibits photosynthesis and eventually can lead to a decline of species in the water ecosystem.
You can mitigate sediment pollution through seeding or installing a silt fence to control and contain a potential erosion.
Reduce meat consumption
Consuming lots of meat is quite common in our society today. However, this has an adverse effect on water pollution since in order to produce more meat, the intensity of fertilizer usage is likely to increase and thus the pollution of the groundwater increases. Reducing the consumption of meat can thus contribute to a reduction in water pollution.
Support other countries to improve their technologies
We have to hand developing countries the knowledge and awareness of how our actions affect water pollution and how to fix this issue. Moreover, we have to stop shipping our trash to other countries and instead deal with our trash at home. This will increase the incentive for each country to reduce trash production significantly.
The ultimate weapon to fight water pollution is to convince people to change their behavior. This includes convincing farmers to use fewer fertilizers and pesticides but also refers to the behavior of private persons in their daily life.
People have to become aware of the fact that reducing trash can be a major contribution to the reduction in water pollution. Moreover, disposing of different kinds of trash appropriately makes a big difference.
In order to solve the water pollution problem, it takes huge efforts, time and money to set up a sustainable process and execute it. We need to put the focus on renewable energies but at the same time have to make sure that we can provide basic things for the growing population. It is also essential to increase awareness of this big problem. We should put more attention in our daily lives on our consumption needs.
Is it really necessary to always have the newest stuff and dump older but still working things? The need for material things is killing the planet since for the production of more things, the water will be polluted even more through the factors mentioned above.
If we really want to make an impact, we need to put awareness on our consumption behavior and decrease our need for material things.
About the author
My name is Andreas and my mission is to educate people of all ages about our environmental problems and how everyone can make a contribution to mitigate these issues.
As I went to university and got my Master’s degree in Economics, I did plenty of research in the field of Development Economics.
After finishing university, I traveled around the world. From this time on, I wanted to make a contribution to ensure a livable future for the next generations in every part of our beautiful planet.
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