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 late Wednesday.
The report, entitled “Quality Unknown: The Invisible Water Crisis,” calls for immediate global, national and local action on water quality dangers that impact developed and developing countries alike.
“Water pollution endangers economic growth. The release of pollution upstream acts as a headwind that lowers economic growth downstream,” the report states.
When Biological Oxygen Demand (BOD), a measure of how much organic pollution is in water and a proxy measure of overall water quality, passes a certain threshold, Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth in downstream regions is lowered by a third, the report notes. Moreover, in middle-income countries, where BOD is a growing problem because of increased industrial activity, GDP growth downstream of highly polluted areas drops by half, according to the report.
“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. Their governments must take urgent action to help tackle water pollution so that countries can grow faster in equitable and environmentally sustainable ways,” World Bank Group president David Malpass said.
The report adds that a key contributor to poor water quality is nitrogen which, applied as fertiliser in agriculture, easily 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 run-off and release into water from every additional kilogram of nitrogen fertiliser per hectare can increase the level of childhood stunting by as much as 19 percent and reduce future adult earnings by as much as two percent, compared to those who are not exposed.
The report also found 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," the report showed.
The report proposed a set of procedures that countries can take to improve water quality, including 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.