Water Pollution And Its Effects

Over two thirds of Earth’s surface is covered by water; less than a third is taken up by land. As Earth’s population continues to grow, people are putting ever-increasing pressure on the planet’s water resources. In a sense, our oceans, rivers, and other inland waters are being “squeezed” by human activities—not so they take up less room, but so their quality is reduced. Poorer water quality means water pollution.

We know that pollution is a human problem because it is a relatively recent development in the planet’s history: before the 19th century Industrial Revolution, people lived more in harmony with their immediate environment. As industrialization has spread around the globe, so the problem of pollution has spread with it. When Earth’s population was much smaller, no one believed pollution would ever present a serious problem. It was once popularly believed that the oceans were far too big to pollute. Today, with around 7 billion people on the planet, it has become apparent that there are limits. Pollution is one of the signs that humans have exceeded those limits.

How serious is the problem? According to the environmental campaign organization WWF: “Pollution from toxic chemicals threatens life on this planet. Every ocean and every continent, from the tropics to the once-pristine polar regions, is contaminated.”

What is water pollution?

Water pollution can be defined in many ways. Usually, it means one or more substances have built up in water to such an extent that they cause problems for animals or people. Oceans, lakes, rivers, and other inland waters can naturally clean up a certain amount of pollution by dispersing it harmlessly. If you poured a cup of black ink into a river, the ink would quickly disappear into the river’s much larger volume of clean water. The ink would still be there in the river, but in such a low concentration that you would not be able to see it. At such low levels, the chemicals in the ink probably would not present any real problem. However, if you poured gallons of ink into a river every few seconds through a pipe, the river would quickly turn black. The chemicals in the ink could very quickly have an effect on the quality of the water. This, in turn, could affect the health of all the plants, animals, and humans whose lives depend on the river.

Photo: Pollution means adding substances to the environment that don’t belong there—like the air pollution from this smokestack. Pollution is not always as obvious as this, however.

Thus, water pollution is all about quantities: how much of a polluting substance is released and how big a volume of water it is released into. A small quantity of a toxic chemical may have little impact if it is spilled into the ocean from a ship. But the same amount of the same chemical can have a much bigger impact pumped into a lake or river, where there is less clean water to disperse it.

Water pollution almost always means that some damage has been done to an ocean, river, lake, or other water source. A 1969 United Nations report defined ocean pollution as:

“The introduction by man, directly or indirectly, of substances or energy into the marine environment (including estuaries) resulting in such deleterious effects as harm to living resources, hazards to human health, hindrance to marine activities, including fishing, impairment of quality for use of sea water and reduction of amenities.” [1]

Fortunately, Earth is forgiving and damage from water pollution is often reversible.

What are the main types of water pollution?

When we think of Earth’s water resources, we think of huge oceans, lakes, and rivers. Water resources like these are called surface waters. The most obvious type of water pollution affects surface waters. For example, a spill from an oil tanker creates an oil slick that can affect a vast area of the ocean.

Not all of Earth’s water sits on its surface, however. A great deal of water is held in underground rock structures known as aquifers, which we cannot see and seldom think about. Water stored underground in aquifers is known as groundwater. Aquifers feed our rivers and supply much of our drinking water. They too can become polluted, for example, when weed killers used in people’s gardens drain into the ground. Groundwater pollution is much less obvious than surface-water pollution, but is no less of a problem. In 1996, a study in Iowa in the United States found that over half the state’s groundwater wells were contaminated with weed killers. You might think things would have improved since then, but, two decades on, all that’s really changed is the name of the chemicals we’re using. Today, numerous scientific studies are still finding weed killers in groundwater in worrying quantities: a 2012 study discovered glyphosate in 41 percent of 140 groundwater samples from Catalonia, Spain; scientific opinion differs on whether this is safe or not. [2]

Surface waters and groundwater are the two types of water resources that pollution affects. There are also two different ways in which pollution can occur. If pollution comes from a single location, such as a discharge pipe attached to a factory, it is known as point-source pollution. Other examples of point source pollution include an oil spill from a tanker, a discharge from a smoke stack (factory chimney), or someone pouring oil from their car down a drain. A great deal of water pollution happens not from one single source but from many different scattered sources. This is called nonpoint-source pollution.

Photo: Above: Point-source pollution comes from a single, well-defined place such as this pipe. Below: Nonpoint-source pollution comes from many sources. All the industrial plants alongside a river and the ships that service them may be polluting the river collectively. Both photos courtesy of US Fish & Wildlife Service Photo Library.

When point-source pollution enters the environment, the place most affected is usually the area immediately around the source. For example, when a tanker accident occurs, the oil slick is concentrated around the tanker itself and, in the right ocean conditions, the pollution disperses the further away from the tanker you go. This is less likely to happen with nonpoint source pollution which, by definition, enters the environment from many different places at once

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