You are on page 1of 3

emerging issues

The Effects of Industrial Pollution on Ecosystems and Human Well-Being
Exploring the links between ecosystems and human well-being, this article looks at the effects of industrial pollution on water quality and their impacts. Informed by a recent UNEP report “Clearing the Waters: A focus on water quality solutions”, released on World Water Day, 22 March, 2010, and also by other UN reports, the article highlights pathways to arrive at the sustainable management of human activities and processes within ecosystems, for improved water quality globally. Humans are dependent upon ecosystem services such as air, water, food, and for provision of materials for development and construction. While the importance of ecosystems and their services cannot be underestimated, a wide range of human and natural processes have altered the way they function, eroding their capacity to deliver these vital ecosystem services for human well-being. Water is vital for life, but also supports ecosystems, e.g. inland water ecosystems
8

that provide a multitude of services, inof our time, threatening the stability and cluding water, fish, habitat, cultural and prosperity of the human population, and aesthetic values, and flood prevention, and hindering efforts aimed at: growth, social also supports non-consumptive on-stream and economic development, the eradication uses such as navigation. Although freshwaof extreme poverty and equity – all essenter ecosystems comprise tial for achieving the Milless than 1 per cent of the “Lack of effective management lennium Development planet’s surface, some 12 of water resources that ensures Goals (MDGs). While per cent of described spesustainable availability of many countries focus on cies live in freshwater and addressing problems of water remains the biggest more than 25 per cent of hunger and malnutrition, challenge of our time.” the worlds described verwater quality continues tebrate species depend on freshwater ecoto be degraded worsening per capita water systems at some point in their lifecycle. In availability. Governments still struggle in recent years, the biodiversity of freshwater their endeavour to ensure equitable and ecosystems has been degraded more than sustainable access to adequate quantities any other ecosystem, including tropical of water, of acceptable quality for human rainforests (MA , 2005b). and environmental uses today, more than The significance of biodiversity in an ever before. Water is linked to the multiple ecosystem and complex interrelations with challenges of climate change, energy and other components determines the structure food supplies and prices, and troubled fiand productivity of ecosystems, as well as nancial markets. contributing to their functionality. Poor water quality has many economic costs associated with it, including degradaWater and development tion of ecosystem services; health-related Lack of effective management of water recosts; impacts on economic activities such sources that ensures sustainable availabilas agriculture, industrial production, and ity of water remains the biggest challenge tourism; increased water treatment costs;

Industry and energy production use account for nearly 20 per cent of total global water withdrawals. toxic sludge.Photo: Jimmy Mohlin the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger (WWAP. 2002). more than 70 per cent of industrial wastes in developing countries are dumped untreated into waters (UN-Water Statistics). and hygiene cause approximately 1. leading to altered ecosystems and higher incidence of water-borne diseases. nutrients. regulate climate. growing waste quantities. generating steam. industrial effluents and atmospheric inputs. agricultural. Industrial activities are a significant and growing cause of poor water quality. 2002). urbanisation. as they result in simplified systems and reduce their intrinsic resilience to change. and industrial wastes. or halt production. salinity. oil and sediments. Impacts can be heightened by the synergistic combination of contaminants affecting species communities and structures. Human development actions have resulted in the destruction of wetlands. 2005a). directly impacting water quantity. the outcome can be overexploitation of aquatic ecosystems as people draw more for storage purposes. Water is critical to many industrial processes. organic chemicals. Worldwide. human health. degradation of other environmental services. leading to other. Industrial pollution and reduced property values. among others. acidity. Major nutrient sources to ecosystems include agricultural runoff. biodiversity. or it may decrease the quality of the product. 2010).7 per cent per year. globalisation of trade. population dynamics. Water is linked not only to goal 7. Worldwide.000 live births enjoyed annual average growth of 3. Increasing impacts on water and ecosystems may result partly from ignorance of human development actions on the environment. discharged directly or indirectly into the water courses. Industrial pollutants often alter broad water quality characteristics. lakes and coastal areas (WWAP. heat. or agriculture effectively reduces the amount of water available. While industrial production can affect water quality. consumption patterns. serious health problems for wildlife and humans around the world. While significant progress has been made in many developed nations to reduce direct discharges of pollutants into water bodies. such as heating and cooling. industry. filter water pollutants. climate variations. such as temperature. are typically the cause of major water quality degradation around the world. When water resources of acceptable quality can no longer be provided in sustainable quantities. which raises the temperature of the receiving water. wildlife habitats. find a new source of water. Although water is essential for achieving sustainable development and the Millennium Development Goals. such as beverages. and cleaning. Pollutants including microbes. waterborne diseases are among the leading killers of children under five years old and more people die from unsafe water annually than from all forms of violence. and other waste into waters each year (UNEP.7 million deaths a year (WHO. unsafe or inadequate water. and an inadequate understanding of ecosystem values.1 per cent per year (Sachs. heavy metals. with the ultimate losers being the ecosystems and organisms (including humans) dependent on them for survival and well-being. Human activities and global water quality domestic sewage. the historical and current use of chemicals for industrial and agricultural purposes along with the chemical byproducts of waste management and emerging toxic pollutants are also compromising water quality. including. Even though no estimates exist on worldwide costs of poor water quality to industry. poor water quality has an impact on the quantity of water available to man in a number of ways. which amplify the patterns of abundance and scarcity e. Degraded water that cannot be used for drinking. 2005). patterns of demand.7 billion in 1992 alone (SIWI. In9 . Water and human well-being Water scarcity is globally significant and is an accelerating condition for 1–2 billion people worldwide (MA . or turbidity of receiving waters. Worldwide. Pressures emanating from population growth. and climate change pose an immediate danger to the current situation. While the majority of the health threats posed by poor water quality is the result of microbial contaminants and subsequent disease in developing countries. and this water is typically returned to its source in a degraded condition. and water quality. whereas similarly poor countries with an IMR greater than 150 had average growth of only 0. its supply is conditioned by other factors. and economic development. leading to problems with food production. More than 80 per cent of sewage in developing countries is discharged untreated. and in decreased productivity and simplification of trophic webs. Countries with an infant mortality rate (IMR) between 50 and 100 per 1. economic growth. Industrial pollution is expected to increase in emerging market economies with economic and industrial development. it is estimated that industry is responsible for dumping 300-400 million tons of heavy metals. diminishing their capacity to prevent floods. increasing energy demands. Much of industrial wastewater is discharged without treatment to open watercourses. a study in China estimated that the industrial income lost due to water pollution amounted to USD 1. solvents. sanitation. Aquatic ecosystems have long been used as a medium for transporting and disposing of human. 2009) and remains far from satisfactory even in some developed countries.g. 2001). 2009). including war (WHO. but also affects the achievement of all MDGs. and as a constituent part of some products. polluting rivers. Poor quality water may force an industrial facility to relocate. reducing the quality of larger volumes of water and sometimes infiltrating aquifers and contaminating groundwater resources. industrial production can also be negatively impacted by poor water quality. While conventional water management has mainly focused on water quantity.

Strategies to implement water quality improvements will require awareness building.” Because industrial revarious incentives. Peter Manyara is an assistant programme officer in the Freshwater Ecosystems Unit Photo: Dima V/SXC An emerging water quality concern is the impact of pharmaceuticals. tering water sources are ineffective or insufAn emerging water quality concern is ficient. places are not adequate or appropriately Urban wastewater constitutes a significant enforced. and legal/regulatory tools. regulations. on aquatic ecosystems. and/ or polluter-pays assessments to finance adequate enforcement. This is a particularly effective mechanism that can be applied in dealing with industrial pollution. for industrial effluent quality are in place although some are believed to mimic natuin many parts of the world. As a first-order intervenThe water quality crisis tion. and driven by urbanisation. substantial progress is made in regulation the biological integrity of polluted waterand enforcement. governance and regulation. but in many ral hormones in humans and other species. such as birth control taken. such as birth control pills. In cases where the industrial efpollution load and is particularly hazardfluent water quality is severely degraded or ous when mixed with untreated industrial toxic. Recognition of anthropogenic impacts on ecosystems has grown dramatically and there have been increasing numbers of efforts to restore degraded habitats and ecosystems worldwide. Preventing pollution at its tries.emerging issues dustries based on organic raw materials are the largest contributors of organic pollution. painkillers and antibiotics. The decisions made in the next decade will determine the path we take in addressing the global water quality challenge. A combination of these solutions will enable us to meet the broadest possible range of human and ecosystem needs. and provide financing for implementation. strengthen enforcement. steel and mining industries represent the major risk for heavy metal release. easiest. most commonly known where they benefit from increased monitoring. Opportunities and mechanisms for overcoming challenges Solving water quality problems requires strategies to prevent. Thomas Chiramba. Regulations that establish water quality standards also need to develop funding streams. most effective way to intensive agriculture sys. less stringent environmental leases are fixed sources. it needs ic ecosystems. When industrial wastewater cannot pills. economic incentives. Directing local. ergistic interactions of multiple chemicals and toxins. while oil. tems. The key to effective restoration efforts is a clear identification of existing conditions and problems in the target resource. Little is known about their long-term human or ecosystem impacts. mechanisms to treat the water for the impact of personal care products and reuse or before discharge should be underpharmaceuticals. and regulations to protect and improve water quality. pollution is expected to courses can be physically restored through increase. as a result of economic development source is often the cheapest. and third. laws. especially in developing counremediation. and international priorities. If efforts to prevent pollution from enguards for effluent treatment are less well established or enforced. second. heads the Freshwater Ecosystems Unit in the Division of Environmental Policy Implementation. Increased monitoring and data collection will help focus more attention on the problems of water quality and evaluate the effectiveness of solutions. fines. There are both technological tools and approaches for meeting water quality goals and non-physical approaches such as pricing. Heavy metals from industrial discharges can accumulate in the tissues of humans and other organisms. and a migration In the industrial setting quality improvements will of industries to emergrequire awareness building. United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). wastewater can ter pollution is on the rise globally. the industrial facility owner should waste as ecosystem responses to industrial be responsible for safely removing pollutpollutants may be complex due to the synants from the water before discharge and appropriately disposing of the hazardous sludge. Little is known about their to be treated before disposal. Unless be treated before it is discharged. through public revenue. a water resources management expert. pollution prevention is ing market economies.“Strategies to implement water protect water quality. and better governance and regulation. and better as cleaner production. and policies to improve water quality can ensure that our global water resources can once again become a source of life. Investing in ecosystem maintenance and restoration can yield better water quality results while saving on costs and therefore a significant incentive for industry to invest in watershed management. painkillers and antibiotics. funding. Polluter-pays principles need to be implemented so that activities that release pollution into waterways internalise the costs of pollution instead of socialising the costs and impacts. Standards long-term human or ecosystem impacts. treat. Education and awareness building efforts will build public support and political will to implement water quality improvements. 10 . national. pollution can be prevented before it Despite improvements in some regions. and remediate water pollution. and where environmental safethey are often regulated. increased monitoring. waenters waterways. on aquatbe prevented or recycled on-site. which is by far more cost-effective. Governance and regulation will create policies.