The earth provided us with every kind of resource we needed for survival – we had water to consume and cleanse, we had air to breathe, we had land to walk on – all of these elements would work in complete harmony with each other. Together they would provide for us.

However, this ideal scenario of a perfectly synced world is a thing of the past. Times have changed and so has the familiar air, water and land.

“Water is life's matter and matrix, mother and medium. There is no life without water.”
Albert Szent-Gyorgyi

As the world population grew to 1.9 billion, so did the human need and intervention in the processes of nature. The quantity of water needed for consumption and survival grew and so did the wastewater.

Similarly, the need for things grew while their supply was limited. Hence began the age of industrialization. This wave of matching the demand and supply resulted in contamination of the environment on all fronts. The pollution spread like wildfire and engulfed our most precious resources. Consider the water – it was contaminated in ways we couldn’t even imagine. 

Canal polluted by single use plastic, effect of water pollution
Canal polluted by single use plastic, effect of water pollution

Till date, water pollution remains a serious concern for the environmentalists and civil society alike. There is a dearth of fresh drinkable water because each and every reservoir of water has been infected with chemicals, sewage, wastewater or worse – radioactive substances.

Effects of water pollution on Human Health and Ecosystem

Think of the water bodies around you – lakes, streams, rivers, seas or oceans. Their shores are laden with plastic and canned foods which we consume. But that is just a small fraction of water pollution. 

From leaking oil tankers to drainage systems which let untreated sewage into our water bodies, from 1 billion automobiles to routine ships which shed their oil and grease into the oceans, from chemical wastes of factories to radioactive substances let loose, everything infects our precious waters.

Facts

Only one-third of its wastewater in India is currently treated, meaning raw sewage flows into rivers, lakes and ponds – and eventually gets into the groundwater.

Read more fact : Water pollution in India

And these are just the ones which are visible to the naked eye. Water pollution goes a step further with groundwater pollution. Whatever chemicals, fertilizers and pesticides our farmers use to cultivate crops seep deep into the soil and contaminate our groundwater. As a result of this and the fact that only 1% of the world’s freshwater is fit for consumption, an acute water crisis is glaring at us.

This does not end here. Along with human beings, the worst hit are the marine animals and plants. The very medium which hosts life for them has been poisoned.

Marine life suffering due to micro plastic in oceans
Marine life suffering due to micro plastic in oceans

Studies reveal that remains of plastics and chemicals (which are generally used in factories) have been found in the bellies of certain dead aquatic animals. When the composition of water is changed, the aquatic life suffocates due to the inadequacy of oxygen. Do they have an alternative habitat? Sadly, no. The only way forward for them is to die a miserable death, while we build more industries and satiate our greed masked as basic need.

Water contamination has adverse effects and dangers which are classified as below:

Human Health

Needless to say, all human beings need water for their survival. Doctors recommend drinking 8 – 10 glasses of water everyday. But what if our drinking water was contaminated, untreated and its composition affected by chemicals and sewage. 

Would the doctors still advise us to consume it? The answer is a big NO. Sadly, all of the sources which provide us drinking water are contaminated today – lakes, streams, seas, oceans and groundwater alike. This in turn affects human health. In countries where the purification and screening process of water is rather poor, people are more prone to be affected by water-borne disease outbreaks such as cholera and tuberculosis. 

Facts

30% of the wells in Israel are closed due to industrial pollution, almost all of then located on the Coastal aquifer.

Read more facts : Water pollution in Israel

World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 3–5 million cholera cases and 100,000–120,000 deaths due to cholera are reported every year. In addition to this, the study reveals that only 5-10% of the cases are reported. In remote areas, where accessibility to a hospital is still not available, the cases are not even detected before the patient’s death.

However, this does not mean that people in developed countries do not suffer. Despite the fact that their water purification methods are better and that their systems are better quipped, water contamination still affects people’s health. 

It is reported that the creation of nuclear weapons in Washington in the United States of America led to billions of tonnes of radioactive waste. This health hazards of this waste are expected to linger on till 2060. Also, developed countries have a lot more industries (and hence industrial waste) associated with them. 

nuclear dumping sites usa, effects of water pollution
nuclear waste dump sites USA. Source CNBC

The wastes and chemicals from these industries is ruthlessly thrown into the waters. Another example would be the  toxins emitted by algae growth. They have the ability to cause excessive stomach aches and rashes.

Another menace is the excess of nitrogen and phosphorus in our drinking waters. The excess of these two in water is known to increase infant mortality rates and also poses a serious health threat to infants. 

Read : How to prevent Water pollution

Now let’s take a look at some facts: In 2010, EPA conducted a study called the National Lakes Assessment. The assessment revealed that almost 20 per cent of the nation’s lakes were contaminated with very high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus. The report went on to suggest that due to the poor lake conditions related to nitrogen or phosphorus pollution, the likelihood of a poor ecosystem in the near future was doubled. 

The numbers have not improved since then. So hasn’t the level of nitrogen and phosphorous.

herbicide type of water pollution
Agriculture produce large amount of herbicide and pesticide water pollution

Agriculture also poses a serious threat to groundwater and estuaries. These startling statistics often lead to a common question – How? How is it that a sector as productive as agriculture can cause harm to water. Wasn’t it supposed to be an eco-friendly occupation? The answer is rather simple but requires deep thought.  The population of the world is growing by leaps and bounds. 

The earth (in its natural state) does not produce enough food to feed every mouth. Therefore, farmers have resorted to the use of chemicals – pesticides, chemicals, fertilizers and even hormones which they spray on the crop to make them grow faster and plentiful. 

Read : Waste water recycling methods

These chemicals of course seep into the ground and make their way into our aquifers, thereby polluting the groundwater. Moreover,  every time it rains, fertilizers, pesticides, animal & human waste from farms and livestock operations wash nutrients and pathogens such as viruses and bacteria into our water bodies. This in turn causes potential nutrient pollution.

For those who are unaware of nutrient pollution, it is caused when nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus are present in the water (in excess, that is). This is because they lead us straight to algal blooms and alter the composition of water. The latter is something we don’t want to achieve while the former is harmful for life – both human and animal

Sewage and wastewater

A common question people have is the nature of wastewater – what is it? Is it the excretion from human or animal bodies or is it something more than that? Well, in essence, any water that is USED is wastewater. 

It may come from our sinks when we wash our dishes, showers, or toilets. It may even come from commercial, industrial, and agricultural activities. It also includes stormwater runoff (an excessive overflow of water which occurs when rainfall washes away all the land pollutants such as salts, oil, grease, debris, chemicals, etc). 

Imagine the millions of scenarios where water is used – ALL of them, without exception, lead to the creation of wastewater. 

John snow discovered the link between Cholera outbrake and sewage water of cesspool
John snow discovered the link between Cholera outbreak and broad St. pump contaminated by sewage water.

Now there is a noteworthy property of water. It makes way through anything and everything. And that includes your wastewater. UNESCO suggests that more than 80% of the world’s wastewater makes its way back to the environment without being treated while the ideal solution would have been to treat it to remove any impurities and then let it join back the water cycle. 

United Nations even went to the extent of saying that in some countries (which rank quite low in terms of development), 95% of untreated water is disposed into the environment. However, this trend is not restricted to developing countries.

Read : Causes of water pollution

Untreated wastewater is discarded into our water bodies almost everywhere in the world. This happens when the volume of wastewater exceeds the capacity of the treatment plant. 

For instance, EPA estimates that almost 34 billion gallons of water are treated in the facilities of the United States of America everyday. That is a massive volume. 

However, the same EPA also suggests that this massive capacity is not enough because the amount of wastewater is much more. 

untreated sewage being pumped into the Dublin bay
Untreated sewage being pumped into the Dublin bay by Ringsend Wastewater Treatment Plant

In fact, 850 billion gallons of untreated wastewater are discarded into the environment by the same system because they are easily overwhelmed. Now this is exactly where the vicious cycle of disease and pollution begins. 

Wastewater has to be treated because it reduces the amount of pathogens (virus and bacteria), chemicals, plastics, phosphorous and nitrogen from the water (which in most cases is sewage water). When this is not done, all these pollutants enter the water cycle – from there, they contaminate the air, land and our food chains, thus being harbingers of disease and disruption in the environment. The vicious cycle does not come to an end.

Oil pollution

What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you think of pollution caused by oil? Perhaps a large tanker which may have broken down or leaked in the middle of an ocean?

Well, most people do take oil pollution as a synonym to oil tanker spills or large large oil slicks which form as a result of these leakages. This is because accidents such as these dominate the news. Our day to day activities don’t. 

Oil leakage during oil tanker accidents is a type of ocean pollution
Oil leakage during ship accidents is a type of ocean water pollution.

The reality is that oil spills only account for approximately 12% (or even lesser) of the oil pollution in the world. The vast majority (Over 70%) is caused by common people like you and us who delightfully live in oblivion, recline on the comfort of our sofas and blame the government for contaminated waters.

On the contrary, regular operations of the shipping industry (which include both legal and illegal discharges) – contribute about one-third and let us not forget the land pollutants. There are over 1 billion automobiles in the world today. ALL of them, no matter how many GO-GREEN slogans they chant, account for the vast majority of oil pollution in our seas. 

This is because oil and gasoline that drips from them everyday. Now if one car drips oil, it doesn’t make much difference. But when 1 billion cards do, it certainly rings a bell. 

Facts

Only about 36 percent of Japanese household are hooked up to sewers, compared to 97 in the United Kingdom and 65 percent in France.

Read more facts : Water pollution in Japan

All of this oil finds its way back into our water resources – whether by joining the nearest river or stream or by seeping deep into the ground and contaminating the groundwater resources which we ultimately end up consuming.

In addition to this, it is estimated by World Ocean Review that  almost half of the estimated 1 million tonnes of oil which escapes into marine environments such as oceans, seas, lakes, rivers and streams each year does not come from oil tanker leakages but from sources we thought were unfathomable.

Popular examples of these are factories, farms, and cities. Can we make a difference? The answer is yes! We can reduce the number of oil based automobiles we are using, we can ensure that the oils we use in our day to day activities are disposed off properly.

It is important to say that one person doing this may not make a difference to the entire world. But when 1.9 billion people make efforts, the result will be quite evident and drastic – and it will be worth it.

It is interesting how oil is naturally present in the ocean, released in minor quantities from ocean floor cracks known as seeps. However, the quantity is just apt enough to support and host a myriad of aquatic life. But the same oil, when exceeds in limits due to human intervention, contaminates the water to the point that it is no longer fit for human consumption or as a medium of supporting life.

Radioactive substances

Radioactive waste – the very name stirs a certain level of discomfort to governments, individuals, scientists, environmentalists and civil society alike.  The hazards caused by radioactive substances are catastrophic.

They lead to harmful diseases like cancer, they hold the potential to eliminate life, they cause genetic mutations and deformations, they cause birth defects among the next generations. We could go on and on about the hazards of radioactive pollution and still, the list would be endless. But first, let us address the nature of radioactive wastes – what are they?

Scientists say that any type of pollution which actively emits harmful radiation beyond what nature itself releases into the environment is classified as radioactive waste.

nuclear waste landfill can leak into groundwater and cause water pollution
Nuclear waste landfill can leak into groundwater and contaminate ground water

It could be generated when uranium is mined, it could be brewed in powerful nuclear power plants, it could be a result of the production and testing of military weapons, it could be generated when universities, institutions and hospitals use radioactive materials for research and medicine.

It is important to say that one person doing this may not make a difference to the entire world. But when 1.9 billion people make efforts, the result will be quite evident and drastic – and it will be worth it.

It is interesting how oil is naturally present in the ocean, released in minor quantities from ocean floor cracks known as seeps. However, the quantity is just apt enough to support and host a myriad of aquatic life. But the same oil, when exceeds in limits due to human intervention, contaminates the water to the point that it is no longer fit for human consumption or as a medium of supporting life.

mutation in vegetable after radioactive pollution in water
Mutation in vegetable grown one year after fukushima nuclear disaster, Japan

Whatever the cause and source, radioactive waste adversely affects the environment on all fronts – air, land and water. 

It can travel for thousands of miles without losing its impact, it can cross boundaries, it can linger on for thousands of years and thus, the disposal of radioactive wastes was and remains a major problem.

Radioactive wastes contaminate the waters and render them unfit for human consumption or supporting life. Research suggests that aquatic life cannot breed in waters which have been contaminated by radioactive pollutants. 

What alternative habitat does the marine life has? Are we heading towards the extinction of the marine life because we are unable to discard our radioactive pollutants?

Consider this – the infamous and decommissioned Hanford site in Washington which was used to produce nuclear weapons for the United States of America gave birth to approximately 56 million gallons of radioactive waste. Disposal and clean up of such a massive amount of radioactive material can cost more than $100 billion.  

Hanford nuclear site. it cost $100 bn to clean nuclear waste pollutants from this site
Hanford nuclear site. it cost $100 bn to clean nuclear waste from this site

The environmental impact caused as a result of this will last till 2060. Till then, the population – be it humans, animals, birds or aquatic life has to bear the brunt.  Could the same amount of money which will be used in discarding this radioactive waste be put to better use? Yes, it could be used to end global poverty or food or water crisis.

Another example of this are the nuclear power plants in England and France. Both of these plants discharge their waters into the water, which crosses boundaries and leaves its impact in all neighbouring countries where the environmentalists are seriously concerned.

In developing countries like India, the Government regulations allow radioactive water from the nuclear water plant to be released into the environment. The fact of the matter is that no amount of permissibility makes radioactive pollutants safe. There is no threshold for radioactive safety.

Facts

Planet Earth has now around 500 “dead zones,” the equivalent to the territory of the United Kingdom.

Read more facts : Water pollution in UK

Allowing the radioactive wastes to enter the water programmed directly translates to cell death, genetic mutations, cancers, leukaemia, birth defects, and reproductive, immune and endocrine system disorders. Even if radioactive substances leak into the environment by accident, they could prove to be catastrophic for groundwater, surface water, and marine safety.

Other types of water pollution include microbiological pollution, suspended matter and chemical pollution, marine dumping, underground leakages and a lot more.

The question is – what can be done to prevent them?

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