We can't imagine our lives without safe drinking water. Yet, as our selection of water pollution facts shows, many of us may have to face this problem shortly. More than half of the world's population will have access to little or no usable water in a few years.
Currently, water scarcity is a threat to our well-being and the future. We fuel this problem primarily 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 making significant progress in turning it into a lucrative business.
#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 many 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.
Given the many advances we've made, ensuring people worldwide have access to safe drinking water should be within our reach. Suppose children, rural dwellers especially, who are most affected by this issue, are going to enjoy clean drinking water that is free from contamination. In that case, we must learn to dispose of our waste safely and correctly.
#3 - Every year, unsafe water kills more people than any form of violence- including war3
We can link safe and sufficient usable water supply to how we manage wastewater. However, according to a recent UN report investigating contaminated water resources around the world, urban sewage discharged into our water bodies alongside toxic sludge and industrial wastewater pollution continues to affect billions across the globe.
#4 - Untreated sewage, industrial waste, and hazardous chemicals flowing back into the ecosystem affect 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 reducing unsafe drinking water, a 2019 World Health Organization (WHO) report reveals that
#5 - 1.8 billion people are still drinking feces-contaminated water, causing 502,000 diarrhoeal deaths every year[ref]
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 percent 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 populations.
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.
Related: Why is water conservation important?
#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 water pollution kills national growth.
Large-scale events such as oil spills and acid rain can pollute large volumes of water. However, we all play a role in the oil pollution of our water as gas and oil drips from our cars and seep into the world's groundwater aquifers.
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 polluted waste, especially in densely populated areas. Uncontrolled hazardous waste sites create further problems, releasing toxic chemicals from industrial wastes into waterways and rivers.
#10 - Every day, 2 million tons of sewage and industrial 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
When your local US beach fails to meet the benchmark that constitutes safe swimming water, the local and federal government must step up.
Due to excessive nutrient pollution from untreated sewage, animal waste, and agricultural runoff, the number of low-oxygen areas known as dead zones (where most marine life cannot survive) has increased globally.
#12 - There are now close to 700 dead zones in the world where aquatic life can't survive, equivalent to the size of the UK[ref]
The land is the most significant source of marine pollution, which harms aquatic ecosystems. The fact is, we send tons of garbage their way.
#13 - Contaminants such as chemicals, nutrients, and heavy metals are responsible for eight percent 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 significant 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.
#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 the 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.
#17 - Approximately 34 billion gallons of human waste and wastewater are processed across various 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 increased globally by 1% yearly. As this water pollution fact shows, when the water demand grows, natural resources become degraded, affecting the water supply. This is not only bad for our socioeconomic development, but it can also put a considerable 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 domestic sewage and our sewers. And if it goes untreated, our natural sources of water, including those underground, will see effects.
#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 information. 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 fatalities 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 severe 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 baby blue syndrome in infants. This can lead to infant death and cardiovascular diseases in extreme cases. 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 water-related diseases.
While 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]
#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 does 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 a fantastic 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. Governments should build more drainage facilities and fix the clogged ones to avoid this.
Experts anticipate a rise in investments in wastewater treatment in the future. In Aqaba, Jordan-- one of the most water-scarce environments globally-- 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 and health and put millions at risk of being displaced. 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 to keep its lands and tourist attractions.
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 well-being of residents and covers the demands for water in construction and other projects.
As the demand for cleaner water continues to explode worldwide, research finds 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 of 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 income for businesses. Like Bangkok, we can achieve this globally by enforcing stricter requirements for emptying septic tanks.
Due to uncontrolled population growth, and 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
Water pollution occurs relative to increasing wastewater discharge worldwide, and 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 at 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 vast 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 are dumped in Indian rivers and other water bodies every day, but only a fraction is adequately treated[ref]
#27 - More than a third of healthcare 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]
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, pollute 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 consciously treat all water resources available.
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, 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: phosphorus and nitrogen pollution. 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 droughts and floods2
#33 - 4.2 billion (55 percent) of the world's population lacks safe sanitation facilities2
This exposes them to serious health complications due to water pollution caused by poor sewage disposal.
#34 - In 2018, the rate of wetlands loss 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 Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)[ref]
Pipes made from plastics are more durable and pose fewer health risks 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 world's oceans every year from coastal regions
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch in the Pacific Ocean - a floating mass of plastic and discarded marine debris, is thought to be bigger than Texas.
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]
#40 - Agricultural pollution threatens 38% of the European Union's water bodies12
Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.
Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.