While California's four-year drought is forcing the most severe mandatory water restrictions in the state's history, another water crisis is brewing that will affect far more people and a much greater territory - the planet at large.
According to a global study by the International Food Policy Research Institute and Veolia, the world is on a path toward rapidly deteriorating water quality in many countries. The first-of-its-kind study indicates that up to 1 in 3 people will be exposed to a high risk of water pollution in 2050 from increased amounts of nitrogen and phosphorous. Up to 1 in 5 people will be exposed to a high risk of water pollution reflected by increased levels of biochemical oxygen demand (BOD).
Even using the most optimistic socio-economic models, water quality is projected to rapidly deteriorate over the next several decades which, in turn, will increase risks to human health, economic development and thousands of aquatic ecosystems in developed and developing economies alike.
The global water crisis is not science fiction. The evidence of drought is real enough. Now we're seeing how the impacts of high levels of organic pollutants can affect our health and society. - Ed Pinero, senior vice president, sustainability, Veolia North America
A major consequence of excessive nitrogen and phosphorous in water bodies is eutrophication, when algae grow faster than normal, killing other aquatic life by depleting oxygen. In addition, the presence of nitrogen-based compounds in drinking water can be harmful to human health. High levels of nitrates can have particularly harmful effects on infants through the so-called “blue-baby” syndrome. Prolonged intake of high levels of nitrates by adults can also lead to gastric problems.
Says Claudia Ringler, deputy division director of IFPRI's Environment and Production Technology Division:
Globally, more people will be living in areas at a high risk of water pollution in 2050 due to increased loadings of pollutants. While these nutrients occur naturally in the environment and, in fact, help sustain aquatic life, too much of a good thing is bad. The study’s results should be alarming to scientists, policy makers and citizens alike. Already, too many people are exposed to high risks associated with these pollutants.
Ringler says the study also demonstrates how water quality issues compound water quantity problems and amplify the need to simultaneously address both issues. Regions most affected include densely populated, large agricultural production centers.
The massive algal bloom in Lake Erie that triggered serious health concerns last year over safe drinking water is a very real example. When both water quantity and water quality are at risk, it’s a recipe for even greater challenges because poor water quality further reduces the amount of available water.
The new study follows previous substantial research conducted by the two organizations indicating that half the world's population (52% of the global population or 4.8 billion people), approximately half of global grain production and 45% of total GDP ($63 trillion) will be at risk due to water stress by 2050 unless more sustainable water resource management practices are adopted.