The State of Our Waterways: An Overview of Water Pollution in 2023

The State of Our Waterways: An Overview of Water Pollution in 2023

Many people around the world are facing a crisis of lack of safe drinking water and safe sanitation, according to recent data published by many international organizations. In 2015, the world committed to Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6 as part of the 2030 Agenda – a promise that by 2030, everyone will be able to manage water and sanitation safely. However, it is clear from reports in recent years that we are seriously behind schedule. Due to dysfunction throughout the water cycle, there are too many global challenges: from health to hunger, gender equality to jobs, education to industry, and disasters to peace.

There is an urgent need to accelerate change to address the water and sanitation crisis. In fact, this is not a situation that can be solved by any single actor or group, only by getting the attention of governments and starting their actions can the goal be achieved.

Key Facts

  • Global water use: 70% for irrigation, 22% for industrial purposes and only 8% for domestic use;
  • Lack of clean drinking water and poor sanitation threatens diseases such as diarrhea, malaria and cholera;
  • Poor quality drinking water affects almost half of the world’s population. Each year it makes up to 250 million people sick, with 5-10 million deaths;
  • In developing countries, up to 70% of industrial waste is dumped into rivers without treatment;
  • A typical cruise ship in a week produces almost 4 million liters of dirty liquid from sinks, showers, dishwashers and washing machines, almost 800 thousand liters of sewage, more than 8 thousand kilograms of solid and toxic waste from dry cleaners and photoproduction waste, more than 149 thousand liters of oily liquid;
  • Water sources often suffer from oil spills. Thus the largest oil spill in the history of mankind occurred in Iraq, when about 800 thousand liters of crude oil were intentionally released into the Persian Gulf during the Gulf War.
  • 1.4 million people die each year, and 74 million lives will be shortened due to diseases associated with poor water, sanitation and hygiene.

Types of Water Pollution

Groundwater pollution

All of the world’s groundwater is threatened by pollution from agriculture, urban areas, solid waste, on-site sewage treatment, oil and gas extraction and refining, mining, manufacturing, and other industrial sources. The primary cause is poor control of these activities, which exceeds the natural attenuation capacity of subsurface soils and strata. Salinization due to overexploitation of groundwater, especially in coastal areas, is another major problem, especially for communities that depend on groundwater for drinking water.

Pathogenic contamination

Pathogenic contamination of surface and groundwater in many areas is a serious threat to human health and is part of the cost of water treatment that contributes to many communities. Bacterial pollution, represented by municipal wastewater collection and treatment, has declined in most developed countries over the past several decades. In contrast, pathogens tend to be the most serious water quality problem in developing countries.

Nutrient pollution and eutrophication

Eutrophication from human sewage, animal waste, fertilizers, air deposition, and erosion is a persistent and widespread water quality problem. Although wastewater treatment has increased in many regions, little progress has been made in reducing nutrient loads from nonpoint sources, including agricultural and urban runoff and air deposition in freshwater and marine systems. While specific thresholds for these processes are uncertain, interventions in the global nutrient cycle may have reached planetary boundaries beyond which marine and freshwater ecosystems cannot recover.

Persistent toxic chemicals

Toxic pollutants include the trace elements cadmium, lead, and mercury; pesticides and their byproducts, such as dichlorodiphenyldichloroethane (DDT) and chlordecone; industrial chemicals; and incineration byproducts. Still in use in many places, these substances can accumulate in aquatic systems and lead to sediment contamination; they can be found in 90% of water bodies. Of greatest concern are substances that are persistent, toxic and bioaccumulative.

Results of Water Pollution

The result of water pollution can be catastrophic, it all depends on the concentrations, the nature of the chemicals and the location of the pollution. Most rivers in cities and towns are heavily polluted. The main causes are: legal and illegal dumping of chemicals, and inadequate filtration.

The death of aquatic fauna

Water pollution primarily affects fauna. Dead fish, seagulls, crabs, dolphins and other animals are often found washed ashore, indicating a sharp deterioration of the environment and an inability to adapt.

Disruption of food chains

Small animals consume chemicals such as cadmium and lead; later, these small, already unhealthy animals are eaten by fish and crustaceans, which also become infected, and so the diseases go higher up the food chain, with humans being the last in the chain.

Destruction of ecosystems

All living things are closely related to each other. If one species of animal is destroyed as a result of human negligence (pollution), other species will suffer and may eventually become extinct.


Humans are very susceptible to diseases associated with poor quality drinking water. Eating fish poisoned with chemicals can make a person sick with hepatitis. In most poor countries, outbreaks of cholera and diseases that are linked to lack of safe drinking water are not uncommon.

Saving the Aquatic Environment: Requirements and Expectations

Water is an important part of our daily activities and its conservation cannot be overemphasized. Three quarters of the fluid in humans is made up of water, and it forms the primary medium in which biochemical reactions occur in the human body. Water moves blood from one place to another in the body and aids digestion; the electrically charged ions that generate the nerve signals that make human brain function possible are also held and carried by water. Water is a good solvent and is commonly referred to as the universal solvent; all the major components of cells, that is, protein, deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), and polysaccharides, are all soluble in water. 

Pure water is tasteless, odorless and transparent and thus provides habitat for aquatic plants and organisms as sunlight can reach them in water. Although clean water is a vital product for human well-being, unfortunately, accessibility to fresh water is unevenly distributed and is highly threatened where it is available due to issues related to climate change, poor water management and pollution. A recent report states that a very high percentage of the world’s population still lacks enough water for human well-being and ecosystem conservation. The world faces the dilemma of striking a balance between economic development and a sustainable natural environment.

Effective wastewater treatment has been previously defined as a way to protect the aquatic environment with a detailed discussion of effective, cheap and affordable wastewater treatment methods. Various other water treatment methods such as direct and/or reverse osmosis, sedimentation, coagulation, filtration, modular anaerobic system, microbial fuel cell, and advanced oxidation process with associated problems are described in the literature.

There are various environmental regulations that stipulate discharge protocols. However, these policies are not effectively enforced because industries consider them detrimental to business. The ability of businesses to work with different environmental discharge policies will support our natural environment.

Policy integration, that is, integrating environmental concerns into the basis of economic development, is very important to facilitate policy implementation. The main actors in environmental problems, i.e. industries, agro-firms and the public, have very little understanding of the impact of their activities on the present and future environment. While organized periodic training on environmental sustainability should be part of environmental policy objectives, it is important to ensure that these objectives are integrated into sectoral programs and policies.

Everyone of us can join in and get to the basics of sustainability. We can start from the comfort of our own homes by giving up chemical pesticides for home gardening and switching to natural substances. We should also be cautious about dumping plastic substances into our toilets and wastewater, which can threaten aquatic life.

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