Water Pollution Facts

Water Pollution Facts & Statistics

We can't imagine our lives without safe, drinking water. Yet, as our selection of water pollution facts show, a number of us may have to face this problem shortly. In a few years, more than half of the world's population will have access to little or no usable water.

Currently, water scarcity is a threat to our wellbeing as well as the future. We fuel this problem, mostly, with wastewater. Wastewater is unclean water from sewage and industry. When it's released into the environment untreated, it destroys natural resources, causes serious health problems and damages our economies. If this pollution trend continues, millions will die.

Below are 40 facts about water pollution, how we can tackle it, and countries that are making significant progress turning it into a lucrative business.

40 Water Pollution Facts

Water Pollution Clean Drinking Water
Photo Credit: DFID on Flickr, (CC BY 2.0)

Safe Drinking Water

#1 - One in every three persons in the world does not have access to safe drinking water1

#2 - 2.2 billion people currently do not have access to clean water2

You can’t cook a good meal or have a proper bath without clean water. Every year, 297,500 children under the age of 5 die because they drink contaminated water. As disturbing as this is, only a few countries have stepped up plans to improve water quality while a lot have yet to hit the ground running. If we're going to conquer this persistent problem, we must take action, explains Dr Maria Neira, WHO Director, Department of Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health.

If children, rural dwellers especially, who are most affected by this issue, are going to enjoy clean drinking water that is free from contamination, we must learn to dispose of our waste safely and properly. Given the many advances we’ve made, ensuring people the world over have access to safe drinking water should be within our reach.

#3 - Every year unsafe water kills more people than any form of violence- including war3

We can link safe and sufficient water supply to how we manage wastewater. However, according to a recent UN report investigating contaminated water resources around the world

#4 - Untreated sewage and industrial chemicals flowing back into the ecosystem affects the health of over 1.8 billion people globally[ref]

Meanwhile, 2.6 billion people have gained access to improved drinking water since the 1990s. Though this is a significant step to provide safe drinking water, a 2019 WHO report reveals that

#5 - 1.8 billion people are still drinking faeces-contaminated water, causing 502,000 diarrhoeal deaths every year[ref]

Water Scarcity

We will continue to experience water scarcity. More people are predicted to have issues accessing the water they need to live. Especially in parts of India, China, sub-Saharan Africa, Australia and Central Asia, where the increasing release of dirty water impacts water scarcity.

#6 - An estimated 500 million people live in areas where water consumption exceeds renewable resources5

#7 - Around 52 per cent of the world's population will live in regions with less water by 20502

Researchers mark Asia, South America and Africa as high water stress areas due to their growing population. The UN says about 1.8 billion people will have little or no access to water by 2025. And by 2030, half of the world's population will be living in areas of high water stress. As a result, this could displace between 24 million to 700 million people, pushing water supply limits and causing millions of deaths.

#8 - By 2040, almost the entire population of the Middle East and South Asia, and significant parts of China and North Africa will live in under severe water stress because of water pollution and climate change2

To resolve this, all hands must be on deck to increase recycling infrastructure in these regions.

Water Pollution & The Environment

Urban Water Pollution
Photo by MD Duran on Unsplash

#9 - About 80% of the world’s wastewater is released to the environment without adequate treatment2

When we release dirty water into the environment, it can destroy lives and the environment. This is particularly disturbing for countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America where cities are without adequate infrastructure and financial resources. Not only does this affect wastewater management, but it also kills national growth.

Eliminating this challenge won't be an easy fight. For a start, we must shun and oppose the practice of releasing wastewater into the environment and encourage the recycling of wastewater, especially in densely populated areas.

#10 - Every day, 2 million tons of sewage and untreated waste are released into our water. The equivalent of the weight of the entire human population of 6.8 billion people5

#11 - Around 10% of Beaches in America fail to be classified as safe for swimming6

Due to excessive nutrients from untreated sewage and agricultural runoff, the number of low oxygen areas known as dead zones (where most sea animals cannot survive) has increased globally.

#12 - There are now close to 700 dead zones in the world, where sea animals can’t survive,  equivalent to the size of the UK[ref]

The land is the biggest source of marine pollution which harms aquatic life. The fact is, we send tons of garbage their way.

#13 - Contaminants such as chemicals, nutrients, and heavy metals are responsible for eight per cent of ocean pollution[ref]

#14 - Over the past 100 years, we have lost half of our natural wetlands and a significant number of freshwater species to climate changes caused by water pollution and growing economic activities2

Untreated wastewater is also a major source of methane, a deadly greenhouse gas. Methane gas is 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide and warms the atmosphere faster. This could cause high heat levels, leading to severe droughts and water shortages, especially in tropical areas.

#15 - Wastewater treatment contributes an estimated 3% to 7% of global GreenHouse Gas (GHG) emissions2

Worrying changes in climate because of water pollution will have a dire impact on water resources in developing countries and small island states in the tropics, reveals a 2020 UN water report.

Untreated Water Pollution in the Developing World

Untreated water pollution
Photo water-borne litter floating next to a bank on a body of water in Salem, Tamil Nadu, India. Credit: Parvathisri (CC BY-SA 3.0)

#16 - Of the 159 million people still collecting untreated drinking water directly from surface water sources, 58% lived in Sub-Saharan Africa7

Globally, access to safe water has increased. But areas in sub-Saharan Africa still have limited access to water. Even though some countries have made changes to improve drinking water, there's been a significant decline in accessing safe water to drink in the region. This is, in part, due to discrepancies between the rich and poor. And what's more disturbing is the hike in purchased water within the region?

To exacerbate this water pollution fact, people in poorer communities pay 10-20 times more for water purchased from water vendors than their rich-country counterparts. We can resolve this issue if we push for more water reforms in low income and developing countries as well as shun social discrimination.

Domestic Water Pollution Treatment

#17 - Approximately 34 billion gallons are processed across various Wastewater treatment facilities in the United States every day[ref]

#18 - 76% of domestic wastewater flow collected in sewers is safely treated1

More population means more demand for sufficient and safe water. Normally, this shouldn't be a problem. But the amount of wastewater released due to increasing populations could wreck our water sources.

Since the 1980s, water use has been increasing globally by 1% yearly. As this water pollution fact shows, when the water demand grows, natural resources become degraded and this affects the water supply. This is not only bad for our socio-economic development, but it can also put a huge strain on the way we consume things.

This should spur us to do things differently. We must push for reforms that support the recycling of wastewater. We can link the availability of safe drinking water to how we manage our sewers. And if it goes untreated, our natural sources of water, including those underground, will see effects.

Water Pollution Contaminants

#19 - In Africa and Latin America, only 26% of urban and 34% of rural sanitation and wastewater services effectively prevent human contact with excreta8

Wastewater contains plastic particles, microbial pollutants, and traces of medications that can threaten human health and food security. For instance the Ganga river in India. It supports roughly 500 million people, providing water for cooking, bathing, and irrigation. But recent UN research highlighted new water pollution facts. Most prominently that the river has a high concentration of feces and receives 100 times more sewage per capita from urban than rural populations.

Globally, unsafe water causes diarrhea and accounts for 1.7 million deaths annually. This water pollution fact is frightening and unless we resolve this, the number of deaths will surge in the future. One way is to prevent more deaths by building hygienic toilet systems. Another is, educating others about the harmful effect of offloading wastewater in rivers.

For example, exposing children to lead can cause serious irreversible damage to their developing brains and nervous systems. In 2015, an NRDC study found 8,044 violations of the lead and copper rule by community water systems serving 18,350,633 people in the US. 582,322 were health-related.

Meanwhile, nitrates concentration in drinking water has been found to cause a baby blue syndrome in infants. In extreme cases, this can lead to infants’ death and cardiovascular diseases. That same NRDC study found 1,529 violations of nitrates at community water systems serving 3,867,431 people in the US, out of which 1,374,494 were health-based.

Whilst over 286 million Americans (roughly over 87 percent of the US population) have access to clean tap water:

#20 - Tap water in every US state contains water contaminants from arsenic to copper[ref]

#21 - There were over 80,000 reported violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act (US) by community water systems in 2015[ref]

Septic Tanks

#22 - Approximately 20% of homes in the United States treat their water waste locally using septic tanks[ref]

Have you ever wondered what happens to all that toilet water when you flush? Or where it goes? Well, if you're lucky, that would be your septic tank (if you have one). Buried under the ground and somewhere far away from your nose. Septic tanks are an excellent wastewater curing facility that separates waste products. It does an amazing job if properly constructed.

However, around 10-20 percent of these septic systems fail at some point because of sewage overload and poor maintenance[ref].

In US homes that don't have one, underground pipes carry wastewater to big treatment plants. This isn't the same for poorer countries due to the lack of drainage facilities. As a result, wastewater creeps into natural water bodies and pollutes them. To avoid this, governments should build more drainage facilities and fix the clogged ones.

The Business of Water Pollution

Experts anticipate a rise in investments towards wastewater treatment in the future. In Aqaba, Jordan-- one of the most water-scarce environments in the world-- wastewater treatment generates more than $4 million in income for the Aqaba Water Company (AWC), improving tourism, public health, and the well-being of residents, according to IWA.

Water scarcity affects both life and agriculture. Researchers expect this global pandemic to surge in the future. If it spirals out of our control it can affect our lands, health and put millions at risk of being displaced. To keep its lands and tourist attractions, Aqaba, a city in the Gulf of Aqaba, has been tackling this disturbing issue by investing in sewage treatment and strictly pursuing a "Zero Discharge" policy in the past years.

Now, for a more positive water pollution fact, 90% of the wastewater from the city is collected and treated. This smart move has not only preserved the green and urban landscape of the city. It has also improved the overall wellbeing of residents as well as covering the demands for water in construction and other projects.

Recycling and Reusing WasteWater

As the demand for cleaner water continues to explode worldwide, research findings another water pollution fact highlighting the commercial opportunity:

#23 - The global market for wastewater recycling and reuse will topple $22 billion by 2021 up from $12.2 billion9

70% of wastewater in high-income countries undergo treatment. But in low-income countries only 8% of wastewater undergoes treatment. Prompting calls to increase the amount of wastewater that we recycle and reuse. This water waste fact shows the economic potential in wastewater treatment. Take Bangkok in Thailand as an example. Sludge from sewers has increasingly become an economic good. They treat the sludge collected from septic tanks and transform them to sell and reuse as fertilizers. 60% of residents of Bangkok engage in agriculture.

As a result, the sales of transformed sludge have created new markets and generated incomes for business. Like Bangkok, we can achieve this globally by enforcing stricter requirements for emptying septic tanks.

Treatment Capacity Needs to Increase

Polluted Water River of Sludge
Aerial Photo of a River of Sludge by Ivan Bandura on Unsplash

Due to uncontrolled population growth, increasing economic developments, there are strong fears the quantity of wastewater pollution load globally is escalating. This could affect people living in cities reveals a 2020 UN report. Experts anticipate that

#24 - By 2050, close to 70% of the world's population will live in cities, overwhelming most countries since many lack adequate infrastructures to address wastewater management efficiently[ref]

With increasing wastewater discharge worldwide, current water treatment facilities remain inadequate. According to a 2018 report by the International Water Association (IWA),

#25 - Current wastewater treatment capacity is 70% of the generated wastewater in high-income countries and only 8% in low-income countries9

Wastewater discharge worldwide is on a high because of the increasing population and inadequate wastewater treatment facilities to match the growing population. This especially threatens low-income countries where the population is huge and uncontrolled. Take Manila, the rapidly growing capital of the Philippines. After difficult bouts with pollution, a citizen's petition inspired successful reforms in the sanitation sector. This paved the way for the privatization of the sector.

Before now, every year, underground pipe networks dumped millions of cubic meters of untreated sewage in Manila Bay and Laguna Lake. Since privatizing the sanitation sector, they can safely manage 44% of fecal sludge and effluent. They have also accelerated sanitation coverage. And more importantly, stakeholders show commitment to ensuring that they achieve 100% coverage and safe reuse of wastewater and sludge by 2028. Meanwhile,

#26 - 40 million liters of wastewater is dumped in Indian rivers and other water bodies every day but only a fraction is adequately treated[ref]

#27 - More than a third of health care facilities in low and middle-income countries like India and Africa use polluted water[ref]

#28 - 19 percent of healthcare facilities do not have improved sanitation, and 35 percent lack water and soap for hand-washing[ref]

Conclusion

Water pollution is everyone’s problem, whether it affects us directly or not. We owe it to ourselves, and the other creatures we share this planet with, to protect Earth’s natural resources. Human activities, both in small and large ways, are polluting the water. And the way we treat wastewater is no better. We need a measure of changes to turn this tide around. On a personal level? Use less water, reuse water when possible, and treat all water resources available to you consciously.

More Water Pollution Facts and Statistics

Due to wastewater discharge, basic drinking water services remain inadequate in Africa. A compiled 2018 UN report shows that

#29 - Safely managed water services are incredibly low in sub-Saharan Africa (24%) compared to 94% in Europe and America[ref]

In a recent UNESCO report, water pollutant levels will increase in the next decades in these areas because of the higher population and economic growth, and dilapidated wastewater treatment facilities.

#30 - People living in low or lower-income countries are more likely to suffer health issues from water pollution caused by pollutants than those in high-income areas

For decades, agriculture has been a major source of livelihood, raw materials, and economic development for countries and individuals. Sadly, it is also a major source of deadly water pollutants: nitrogen and phosphorus. According to a 2018 UNESCO report,

#31 - The most prevalent water quality challenge is managing diffuse runoff of excess nutrients from agriculture10

#32 - Water pollution will probably increase to distressing levels in the next decades, especially in areas battling with droughts and floods2

#33 - 4.2 billion (55 per cent) of the world's population lacks safe sanitation facilities2

This exposes them to serious health complications as a result of water pollution caused by poor sewage disposal.

#34 - In 2018 the lost rate of wetlands was three times higher than that of forests11

#35 - 22 percent of healthcare facilities in the least developed countries do not have a waste management service[ref]

#36 - 53 percent of rivers and streams miles in the US are considered impaired and unacceptable by the EPA[ref]

Pipes made from plastics are more durable and pose less health risk than those from metal. However, they are one of the largest sources of marine pollution. According to a 2018 survey,

#37 - 18 billion pounds of plastic waste flow into the oceans every year from coastal regions

India suffers serious water pollution issues that could threaten the quality of living in the country. According to a 2019 report by the World Economic Forum (WEF),

#38 - 70 percent of the surface water in India is unfit for consumption[ref]

#39 - Around 663 million people rely on water from polluted sources, including a shocking 159 million people that depend on surface water[ref]

2 United Nations: World Water Development Report 2020 ‘Water and Climate Change
3 UNICEF. Water Under Fire, March 2019
5 World Water Assessment Programme (UNESCO WWAP), Water for People, Water for Life, (2003)
6 NRDC, Testing the Waters, Mark Dorfman & Angela Haren, (2014)
8 United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP). (2016). A Snapshot of the World’s Water Quality: Towards a global assessment. United nations.
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