Industrialisation has brought about numerous manmade consequences, spanning over centuries from the deadly cholera outbreak of 1854 to the modern day, where a significant portion of the population still face barriers in accessing clean water for basic hygiene. In this article, we explore the causes and impacts of water pollution and overuse.
All living things require water to survive. It is needed to grow the food we eat, keep us safe from harmful microbes and substances, and even provide us with the ability to generate electricity. This amazing liquid makes up 71% of the planet’s surface, yet only 1% is drinkable, and around 40% of that comes from groundwater. With a global population at over eight billion, there is no questioning the importance of clean, accessible, and sustainable water sources.
Pollution and Overuse of Water Sources: Causes and Consequences
Water contaminants include a wide range of chemicals, solid objects, and deadly microbes. One of the most notable examples of this can be traced back to Broad Street in 1854 in London, England, where a deadly cholera outbreak was eventually found to be caused by contaminated water being pumped from the Thames River. Approximately 160 years later, in Flint, Michigan, residents began suffering from Legionnaires’ disease, while pediatricians began reporting alarming levels of lead in their patients’ labs, resulting from exposure to bacteria and lead-contaminated water sources. These are just two of many instances in which mismanaged water has affected entire communities and killed hundreds of people.
One of the largest contributors to water pollution can be traced back to the agriculture industry. Fertilisers, used to boost crop yields, disrupt aquatic ecosystems by promoting toxic algae in bodies of water. Livestock is another source of water contamination. Large livestock operations produce large quantities of excrement, which is utilised as fertiliser. However, the amount of waste produced often exceeds the need for a reasonably healthy yield. This excess waste ends up in surface water, and also sinks down into the earth, where it eventually mixes in with groundwater.
Much of this waste, whether produced by animals or by industrial means, contains known endocrine disruptors, which have a serious impact on the health of human beings but also on the health of every living organism that comes into contact with it.
Water pollution goes beyond agriculture to also include the water we flush down our toilets. Water treatment facilities are becoming overwhelmed with increasing demand from the ever changing population. In the US, hundreds of thousands of miles of sewage networks were built more than 30 years ago, when the world population was closer to 6 billion, much lower than today. The current infrastructure simply cannot handle current demands. This inevitably results in overflowing pipes that leak into the environment and overflow with rain, posing similar issues to livestock waste. What’s more, our sewage systems carry more than just organic waste, increasing the risk of contamination. Everything we use that goes down the drain enters our sewage systems: cleaning chemicals, pharmaceuticals, personal hygiene products, oil.
Water contamination is not just limited to waste. Sometimes, physical man-made changes can have detrimental consequences on the drinking water, as witnessed in New Orleans, Louisiana. After a 2022 project to deepen channels in the Mississippi River, led by the US Army Corps, a saltwater wedge entered the river, disrupting the water supply for the city of New Orleans and nearby communities. Other times, one tragedy is enough to leave a lasting impact on communities. An example of this is the recent incident in East Palestine, Ohio, where a train derailment resulted in a devastating explosion that released a slew of toxins into the surrounding environment and water supplies.
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In regions around the world, another persistent challenge emerges – one not primarily associated with pollution but rather the overuse of a hidden resource: groundwater. In the US, groundwater serves as one of the primary sources of water, with a daily pumping rate exceeding 80 billion gallons. While the majority of water usage in America relies on surface water, certain communities and many bodies of water, including rivers and lakes, also depend on groundwater, which is continuously replaced gradually through natural processes.
Despite the cyclical nature of this resource, excessive extraction has its toll on some cities like Moses Lake, Washington and surrounding communities. The steady growth of the population has led to a rapid annual decline of up to 20 feet (9.1 metres) in groundwater levels, as water is being consumed more quickly than it can naturally replenish itself. Cities and towns, such as Moses Lake, face the potential of experiencing a situation similar to Teviston, California, where residents had to endure a drought without access to running water when their primary water source failed due to critically low levels in 2021.
Protecting Water Resources
By implementing sustainable water management practices, investing in conservation efforts, and raising awareness about responsible water use, there is hope. It is important to remember that small progress is still progress. Seeking out information, doing our part in conserving water, and spreading awareness in our communities are just the beginning.
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