Hundreds of millions at risk from rising water pollution

Over 320 million people in Africa, Asia and Latin America face health risks from rising water pollution. Asia is the hardest hit from severe pollution, with up to half of its waterways affected.

According to a new report by the UN’s environment agency, rising water pollution is placing hundreds of millions of people around the world at risk of contracting life-threatening diseases such as cholera and typhoid.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) estimates that 164 people are at risk of infection from water-borne diseases in Africa, 134 million in Asia and 25 million in Latin America.

Already today 3.4 million people die each year from water-borne diseases, many of which are caused by the presence of human waste in water. According to a UN statement, “the solution is not only to build more sewers but to treat wastewater”.

Jacqueline McGlade, chief scientist at UNEP, said: “The increasing amount of wastewater being dumped into our surface waters is deeply troubling. Access to quality water is essential for human health and human development. Both are at risk if we fail to stop the pollution.”

Other reasons for the troubling rise in water pollution in Asia, Africa and Latin America are population growth, increased economic activity, and the expansion and intensification of agriculture.

The report estimates that severe pathogen pollution affects “around a quarter of Latin American river stretches, around 10 to 25 per cent of African river stretches and up to one-half of Asian river stretches”.

In some countries, more than 90 per cent of the population relies on surface waters as their source of drinking water. Women, children and the poor are particularly vulnerable, adds the report.

But there is still time to tackle the problem of water pollution, including better water monitoring, treating polluted water before it enters waterways, recycling wastewater for irrigation or restoring wetlands to remove pollutions from urban or agricultural run-off.

“There is no doubt that we have the tools needed to tackle this growing problem,” said McGlade. “It is now time to use these tools to combat what is slowly becoming one of the greatest threats to human health and development around the world.”


Image credit: Farhana Asnap / World Bank, flickr

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