The global water crisis needs to become more visible, going beyond the UN’s SDG for wastewater treatment

While achieving the United Nations’ ambitious Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) for wastewater treatment would cause substantial improvements in global water quality, severe quality issues would continue to persist in some world regions.

That is the conclusion of researchers at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. They developed a new water quality model to further elucidate the current and future pollution status of rivers and streams globally.

Water quality issues are branded an ‘invisible crisis’ by the World Bank, being under-monitored, difficult to detect and often imperceptible to the human eye.

Nevertheless, the quality of global water resources is increasingly coming under pressure due to population growth, economic development and climate change.

Yet, clean water is vital for our societal needs – such as public health, energy generation and crop production – and for protecting ecosystem health.

To illustrate, an estimated 829,000 deaths worldwide are attributed each year to diarrhoea caused by the use of contaminated water for drinking or sanitation purposes.

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water knowledge

In this study, the authors developed a new high-resolution global water quality model.

Lead author Edward Jones said: “[The model can] help to fill-in-the-gaps in water quality knowledge, particularly in world regions where we lack observations.

“For instance, large-scale irrigation systems for agriculture drive salinity issues in northern India, while industrial processes are more responsible in eastern China.

“Conversely, the domestic and livestock sectors drive organic and pathogen pollution worldwide.”

serious economic challenges

The authors extended their focus beyond just past and current water quality. They applied their model to investigate how achieving the SDG target to halve the proportion of untreated wastewater entering the environment in 2030 would benefit global river quality.

Jones explained: “Our simulations show that, for a large part of the year, water quality in several regions would still exceed critical thresholds for human uses and ecosystem health. This is especially the case for developing countries, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia.”

So, while the SDG target improves quality, it is not always enough. Finding an optimum way to manage these problems is a difficult puzzle, however.

He warned: “Even achieving the current SDG target will pose serious economic challenges, as expansion of wastewater treatment can be an expensive process.

“Yet the cost disadvantages of inadequate water quality for sectoral uses must also be considered. Ultimately, however, we also need to reduce our pollutant emissions and develop new approaches towards wastewater management.

“With this paper we hope to underline the water quality problems we’re facing and firmly place these issues back on the political agenda.”

The paper was published in Nature Communications Earth & Environment.

Image: Wastewater treatment plant © Izzet Cakalli.