Worsening water quality reducing economic growth by a third in some countries: World Bank

Ground Water Canada
August 21, 2019
By Ground Water Canada
A new report by the World Bank shares how a combination of bacteria, sewage, chemicals, and plastics is sucking oxygen from water supplies and transforming water into poison for people and ecosystems. Video courtesy World Bank
Washington – The world faces an invisible crisis of water quality that is eliminating one-third of potential economic growth in heavily polluted areas and threatening human and environmental well-being, according to a World Bank report released on Aug. 20.


"Quality Unknown: The Invisible Water Crisis" indicates, with new data and methods, how a combination of bacteria, sewage, chemicals, and plastics can suck oxygen from water supplies and transform water into poison for people and ecosystems, the World Bank said in a news release. To shed light on the issue, the World Bank assembled the world’s largest database on water quality gathered from monitoring stations, remote sensing technology, and machine learning.

The report finds that a lack of clean water limits economic growth by one-third. It calls for immediate global, national, and local-level attention to these dangers which face both developed and developing countries.   

ECONOMIC EFFECTS
“Clean water is a key factor for economic growth. Deteriorating water quality is stalling economic growth, worsening health conditions, reducing food production, and exacerbating poverty in many countries,” World Bank Group president David Malpass said. “Their governments must take urgent actions to help tackle water pollution so that countries can grow faster in equitable and environmentally sustainable ways.”

When Biological Oxygen Demand – a measure of how much organic pollution is in water and a proxy measure of overall water quality – crosses a certain threshold, GDP growth in downstream regions drops by as much as a third because of impacts on health, agriculture, and ecosystems, the report suggests.

NITROGEN
A key contributor to poor water quality is nitrogen, which, applied as fertilizer in agriculture, eventually enters rivers, lakes and oceans where it transforms into nitrates. Early exposure of children to nitrates affects their growth and brain development, impacting their health and adult earning potential. The runoff and release into water from every additional kilogram of nitrogen fertilizer per hectare can increase the level of childhood stunting by as much as 19 per cent and reduce future adult earnings by as much as two per cent, compared to those who are not exposed.

SALINITY
The report also finds that as salinity in water and soil increases due to more intense droughts, storm surges and rising water extraction, agricultural yields fall.  The world is losing enough food to saline water each year to feed 170 million people.

RECOMMENDATIONS
The report recommends a set of actions that countries can take to improve water quality. These include environmental policies and standards; accurate monitoring of pollution loads; effective enforcement systems; water treatment infrastructure supported with incentives for private investment; and reliable, accurate information disclosure to households to inspire citizen engagement.

The report was funded in part by the Global Water Security & Sanitation Partnership, a multi-donor tTrust fund based at the World Bank’s Water Global Practice. It is available for download.

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