Worsening Water Quality Reducing Economic Growth by a Third in Some Countries: World Bank

STOCKHOLM, Sweden

A new World Bank report “Quality Unknown: The Invisible Water Crisis” shows how a combination of bacteria, sewage, chemicals, and plastics is able to deplete oxygen from water supplies and transform water into poison for people and ecosystems. This "invisible crisis" of water quality is eliminating one-third of potential economic growth in heavily polluted areas, threatening human and environmental well-being, according to the report.

The World Bank assembled a huge database on water quality utilizing information from monitoring stations, remote sensing technology, and machine learning. Analysis of the data gathered indicates that 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.

World Bank Group President David Malpass said in a press release that “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 actions to help tackle water pollution so that countries can grow faster in equitable and environmentally sustainable ways...As has been documented before, a key contributor to poor water quality is nitrogen. Applied as fertilizer in agriculture, it eventually leaches into 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.”

Salinity in water and soil has also increased as a consequence of more intense droughts, storm surges and rising water extraction. According to the data, the increase in salinity is causing a decrease in food production sufficient to feed 170 million people, annually.

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. Speaking to The Water Diplomat after presenting the report at World Water Week in Stockholm this week, Jennifer Sara, Global Director for the World Bank Group's Water Global Practice said    "Prevention is better than cure. Given uncertainty about safe thresholds for water quality parameters in drinking water, prevention is the safest course of action, and for certain ranges of certain pollutants it is also much cheaper than treating water after it has been despoiled. But prevention can be very hard to do, especially in developing countries where regulatory capacities and budgets are low. Costs of pollution act as a headwind against economic growth. And we see that when it comes to water, countries rich and poor suffer from declining water quality. So wealth does not protect against pollution"

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