Water quality rapidly deteriorating in many countries, study shows

April 15, 2015
A new global study recently released by the International Food Policy Research Institute and Veolia indicates that the planet is on a path toward rapidly deteriorating water quality in many countries.

CHICAGO, IL, April 14, 2015 -- A new global study recently released by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and Veolia, a specialist in optimized resource management, indicates that the planet is on a path toward rapidly deteriorating water quality in many countries. The first-of-its-kind study indicates that up to 1 in 3 people will be exposed to a high risk of water pollution in 2050 from increased amounts of nitrogen and phosphorous (N&P). Further, up to 1 in 5 people will be exposed to a high risk of water pollution reflected by increased levels of biochemical oxygen demand (BOD).

Even using the most optimistic socio-economic models, water quality is projected to rapidly deteriorate over the next several decades which, in turn, will increase risks to human health, economic development and thousands of aquatic ecosystems in developed and developing economies alike. The new study follows previous substantial research conducted by the two organizations, indicating that half the world's population (52 percent, or 4.8 billion people) -- approximately 49 percent of global grain production and 45 percent of total GDP ($63 trillion) -- will be at risk due to water stress by 2050, unless more sustainable water resource management practices are adopted.

"Globally, more people will be living in areas at a high risk of water pollution in 2050 due to increased loadings of pollutants," said Claudia Ringler, deputy division director of IFPRI's Environment and Production Technology Division. "Our study examined the effects of increased nitrogen, phosphorous and BOD as human population, agriculture activity and economic development accelerates. We also examined potential impacts through the lens of established climate change models. While these nutrients occur naturally in the environment and, in fact, help sustain aquatic life, too much of a good thing is bad. Already, too many people are exposed to high risks associated with these pollutants."

A major consequence of excessive N&P in waterbodies is eutrophication, when algae grow faster than normal, killing other aquatic life by depleting oxygen. In addition, the presence of nitrogen-based compounds in drinking water can be harmful to human health. High levels of nitrates can have particularly harmful effects on infants through the so-called "blue-baby" syndrome. Prolonged intake of high levels of nitrates by adults can also lead to gastric problems.

Ringler further explained that the study also demonstrates how water quality issues compound water quantity problems and amplify the need to simultaneously address both issues. The global study uniquely links and layers socio-economic projections, climate change predictions, and projections for agricultural production with biophysical water quality modeling developed by IFPRI and Veolia, the world's largest environmental and water company. Regions most affected by the studied pollutants (BOD and N&P) are densely populated with large agricultural production centers.

Ed Pinero, senior vice president of sustainability for Veolia, added, "The massive algal bloom in Lake Erie that triggered serious health concerns last year over safe drinking water is a very real example" (see "Toledo water resources contaminated by Lake Erie algae"). "When both water quantity and water quality are at risk, it's a recipe for even greater challenges because poor water quality further reduces the amount of available water." Pinero points out that while N&P are already a serious problem in many waterways, the study indicates that N&P loadings will increase substantially through 2050.

He further explained that as population grows and the quality of life improves, demand for water, food and sanitation will increase. "These demands, especially with growing urbanization, will lead to increased discharges of nitrogen, phosphorus and elevated levels of BOD," he said. "A polluted water source is almost like having no water resource due to the high chemical, energy and treatment costs associated with making that water available and useable again. The good news is that there are many solutions stemming from technology, best practices and social behavior that give hope to minimizing the adverse impacts."

Key findings of the study include the following:

  • Regions most affected include densely populated, large agricultural production centers. The largest levels of these pollutants are discharged in Northern and Eastern China and parts of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. The Midwestern U.S., Central Europe and Central-Eastern South America also generate high levels of N&P loads.
  • The most rapid increases in exposure to pollutants will occur in low- and lower-middle income countries due to higher population and economic growth.
  • By 2050, a drier climate change scenario -- coupled with medium levels of income and population growth -- projects that 1 in 3 people will be at high risk of nitrogen pollution (2.6 billion, or an increase of 172 percent); 1 in 3 people will be at high risk of phosphorous pollution (2.9 billion, or an increase of 129 percent); and 1 in 5 people will be at high risk of water pollution from BOD (1.6 billion, or an increase of 144 percent).
  • Using the same data under a wetter climate change scenario produces similar results, with 1 in 4 people at high risk of nitrogen pollution, 1 in 3 people at high risk of phosphorous pollution, and 1 in 6 people at high risk of water pollution from BOD.

Solutions exist that can improve both social and ecological resilience. Greater adoption of sustainable agricultural methods can help -- including enhanced nutrient-use efficiency, phased-out fertilizer subsidies, no-till or reduced tillage and other conservation measures, and closing the nutrient cycle. Sustainable solutions also exist for cities and industry, including more aggressive investment in wastewater treatment, increased recycling and reuse, green infrastructure, the establishment of markets for nutrient credit trading, governance models based more on watersheds and less on traditional political borders, and improved home design to minimize pollution.

See also:

"Study Highlights Water Scarcity Threat to Business"

"Veolia selects Xylem as preferred partner under multi-year global contract"

International Food Policy Research Institute

The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) seeks sustainable solutions for ending hunger and poverty. IFPRI is one of 15 centers supported by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), an alliance of 64 governments, private foundations, and international and regional organizations. The study was carried out under the Water, Land and Ecosystem research program of CGIAR. For more information, visit www.ifpri.org.

About Veolia

Veolia group is a global specialist in optimized resource management. With over 179,000 employees worldwide, the group designs and provides water, waste and energy management solutions that contribute to the sustainable development of communities and industries. Through its three complementary business activities, Veolia helps to develop access to resources, preserve available resources, and to replenish them. For more information, visit www.veolia.com.


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