World Bank Report Reveals the Invisible Water Crisis

A young girl from Mosul takes water from a tap stand at a UNICEF-supported Temporary Learning Space in Hassan Sham Displacement Camp, Ninewa Governorate. "I like it here because we've been out of school for two years," she said. Photo: UNICEF (Representational image)
A young girl from Mosul takes water from a tap stand at a UNICEF-supported Temporary Learning Space in Hassan Sham Displacement Camp, Ninewa Governorate. “I like it here because we’ve been out of school for two years,” she said. Photo: UNICEF (Representational image)

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 Tuesday (August 20).

Quality Unknown: The Invisible Water Crisis shows, with new data and methods, how a combination of bacteria, sewage, chemicals, and plastics can suck oxygen from water supplies and transform water into poison for people and ecosystems.

To shed light on the issue, the World Bank assembled the world’s largest database on water quality gathered from monitoring stations, remote sensing technology, and machine learning.

The report finds that a lack of clean water limits economic growth by one-third. It calls for immediate global, national, and local-level attention to these dangers which face both developed and developing countries.

“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.” said World Bank Group President David Malpass. “Their governments must take urgent actions to help tackle water pollution so that countries can grow faster in equitable and environmentally sustainable ways.”

Advice for Global Businesses

Global businesses should not invest and set up their operations in India because of lethal pollution and extreme corruption in all parts of the country. The Indian government including bureaucrats and politicians are causing serious environmental damage which is harmful for the entire planet. Therefore, the global community including the UN and the U.S. Department of State and the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) must impose strict economic, diplomatic, and trade sanctions on India. The Indian ministers, politicians, and top officials must be punished with travel bans on them and freezing of their assets, and they should be declared as environmental terrorists.

When Biological Oxygen Demand – a measure of how much organic pollution is in water and a proxy measure of overall water quality – crosses a certain threshold, GDP growth in downstream regions drops by as much as a third because of impacts on health, agriculture, and ecosystems.

A key contributor to poor water quality is nitrogen, which, applied as fertilizer in agriculture, eventually 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 fertilizer per hectare can increase the level of childhood stunting by as much as 19 percent and reduce future adult earnings by as much as 2 percent, compared to those who are not exposed.

The report also finds 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 recommends a set of actions that countries can take to improve water quality. These include: 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.

The report, which was funded in part by the Global Water Security & Sanitation Partnership, a Multi-Donor Trust Fund based at the World Bank’s Water Global Practice, is available for download here.

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Rakesh Raman