• Highlights, photos and videos from the Greenpeace report

    Hidden Consequences

    The costs of industrial water pollution on people, planet and profit

    'Hidden Consequences' gathers together case studies from Thailand, Russia, the Philippines, China, Switzerland, the United States, the Netherlands and Slovakia for the first time in one accessible document to reveal the true costs of industrial water pollution for people, the environment and the wider economy.

    Browse this digital magazine for highlights, photos and videos from the new Greenpeace report, to learn more about the costly and irreversible mistakes made by countries in the Global North, and the urgent need for action to save many of our iconic waterways in the Global South from the same fate.

    Use the arrow on the right, or the numbers above to navigate through the presentation.

  • Hidden Consequences
    Thailand: Chao Phraya River
    Russia: Neva River
    The Philippines: Marilao River System
    China: Yangtze River

    As the four case studies in Thailand, Russia, The Philippines and China demonstrate, there is an urgent need to eliminate the use and discharge of hazardous substances from industrial sources, in order to rescue our precious waterways and protect the livelihoods of all those who rely upon them.

    Governments have a choice, and our voices can help them make the right one for people and the planet.

    Download the Executive Summary

    Rescuing our iconic rivers

    Rivers provide a lifeline for the communities through which they flow and for the cities that swell on their banks. They supply vital and life-sustaining resources, including drinking water, crop irrigation, and food. They also serve as a critical support system for industrial activity, providing water for many manufacturing or cooling processes. It is this industrial activity that often has a hidden, darker side.

    Section 1 of this report portrays four iconic rivers in the Global South, which are increasingly being destroyed by industrial activity and the releases of hazardous chemicals. Many of these substances are persistent and can gradually accumulate in sediments and in the food chain and impact upon critical resources; such as water used for agriculture and drinking water. Their presence is contaminating wildlife and entire ecosystems, and causing long-term, irreversible damage to people, the environment, and the wider economy.

    Such damage generates enormous economic, environmental and social costs, as demonstrated by the four case studies of poisoned rivers in the Global North featured in section 2. Unfortunately these are not isolated examples.

    The good news is that it is not too late to act. It is still possible to limit and prevent future damage to many of our rivers - but new rules and responsibilities - such as those outlined in section 3 - are required to make this happen.

  • Hidden Consequences
    Factory water treatment pond

    A water treatment pond of a bleaching and dyeing factory near the Samron Canal, in the lower part of the Chao Phraya river basin.

    Thailand: Chao Phraya River

    The Chao Praya river, revered culturally as the 'heart' of Thailand, suffers from growing pollution and ongoing industrialisation, that competes not only with traditional uses such as fishing or water for agriculture, but also with the provision of safe drinking water to Thailand's biggest metropolis - Bangkok.

    Yet despite significant quantities of hazardous chemicals being manufactured and in use, little is known about the releases or about the extent of pollution caused by hazardous substances from industrial sources.

    There is an urgent need to establish the extent of the problem, disclose pollution data and develop appropriate solutions - with the aim of eventually eliminating all releases of hazardous substances.

    Time is short. The fact that many of the hazardous substances identified in the Chao Phraya and in the sea water off the coast of Thailand are banned in other more developed markets, or have been prioritised for elimination by the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, should be a wake-up call to the authorities to start addressing this problem now.

    Download Section 1

  • Hidden Consequences
  • Hidden Consequences
    Discharge pipe

    A wastewater discharge pipe into the Okhta river, which is one of the main tributaries of the Neva river. Oil product content exceeds allowable concentrations by 140 thousand times.

    Russia: Neva River

    The Russian Neva, the third largest river in Europe in terms of average discharge, supplies St Petersburg and its 5 million inhabitants with all its drinking water. Despite this critical role, its waters remain largely unprotected from contamination with hazardous chemicals as a result of both formal and informal industrial activities.

    An investigation by Greenpeace in 2010 showed the presence of a variety of toxic metals and persistent organic chemicals in some industrial effluents, in the sludge of certain wastewater treatment plants, in river sediments, and in soils where electronic waste 'recycling' had been carried out.

    This investigation - and others - illustrate that pollution is caused by hazardous chemicals at both ends of a product's life cycle - in its manufacturing and its disposal.

    To rescue the river Neva, a chemical management strategy that is based on a political commitment to 'zero discharge' of all hazardous substances is urgently needed. This strategy must include plans to eliminate those hazardous chemicals present in products, and those found in industrial releases, before the continued degradation of the river spirals out of control.

    Download Section 1

  • Hidden Consequences
    Bearing Witness In Marilao

    A Greenpeace volunteer talks to a local resident beside Marilao River in Bulacan 25 kilometers north of Manila. Marilao River has been identified by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) as one of the Philippines 50 dead rivers due to heavy pollution.

    The Philippines: Marilao River System

    The extensive Marilao river system in the province of Bulacan, near Manila, now holds the dubious distinction of being labelled as one of the world's dirtiest rivers by the Blacksmith Institute.

    A monitoring programme for the Marilao river system - set up in 2008 with the Asian Development Bank - confirmed the contamination of the Marilao river system by numerous heavy metals.

    Shellfish and freshwater fish from the Marilao river system - widely consumed by the population in the area and in metropolitan Manila - also displayed evidence of metal contamination, in some cases with levels in excess of established limits for human consumption.

    The consequences for the national economy have already been demonstrated by the scale of the estimated clean-up costs - which in a country such as the Philippines are prohibitive.

    There is an urgent need to implement plans for clean production and to eliminate discharges of hazardous chemicals into the river basin - with the priority on substituting the most hazardous substances with safer alternatives - in order to avoid the accumulation of further costs to people, planet and profit as a result of industrial pollution.

    Download Section 1

  • Hidden Consequences
    Local Woman in Guangdong Province

    Families who fish and drink water from the Yangtze river have noticed that the water has a strange flavour.

    China: Yangtze River

    Throughout China's long history, the Yangtze river basin has been a centre of cultural and industrial activity. Today it contributes around 40% of the nation's GDP, the equivalent of about $1.5 trillion US dollars.

    Industrial developments are particularly concentrated in the Yangtze river delta, with this region alone accounting for around one-fifth of China's entire economy. It includes 16 cities, including Shanghai, whose 20 million people are dependent on the Yangtze for drinking water.

    However, despite its impressive stature, it should not be assumed that the Yangtze river has an unlimited capacity to absorb and dilute industrial pollution. There is grave concern for the Yangtze river, because of the sheer scale of the industrial development that is taking place, and because of the huge number of people whose livelihoods depend upon its waters.

    Contamination by hazardous chemicals is already measurable despite the volume of the river, and is also threatening the East China Sea. A plan which leads to 'zero discharge' of hazardous substances needs to be urgently implemented in order to avoid the potentially enormous costs of remediation, and before China's rapid economic growth pushes the Yangtze beyond its ecological limits.

    Download Section 1

  • Hidden Consequences
  • Hidden Consequences

    Swiss The case of the 'Swiss Toxic Dumps' is an example of the cumulative costs of clean-up operations as a result of short-sighted dumping of hazardous wastes in landfill sites, in this case by the chemical and pharmaceutical industries in Switzerland. Image copyright: Quotidien Jurassien.

    U.S. Polluting in the pursuit of profit can prove to be an expensive strategy for industry in the long run. In the case of the Hudson River, USA, General Electric has been held accountable for the enormous, multi-million Dollar clean-up operation. Image copyright: US NOAA DARRP.

    Dutch In a large river basin, the polluters can be so numerous that it is not possible to hold them liable for clean-up of the pollution problems caused downstream. In the case of the polluted sediments in the Dutch Delta, it is the Dutch taxpayer who is forced to foot the bill. Image copyright: NASA Goddard photo and video (Under CC license).

    Slovak Progress has stalled in the case of dealing with the toxic pollution released by Chemko Strážske in the Laborec River, Slovakia. As a result, the local population continues to be exposed to the hazardous chemicals – in spite of the significant health impacts that have been observed. Image copyright: Greenpeace / Rizman.

    Learning from our past mistakes

    Case studies from the Global North show the extent to which persistent and bioaccumulative substances have contaminated entire regions. They also show the immense difficulties - technical, economic and political - of cleaning up these hazardous chemicals after release, including the very high expense of restoration programmes and the impossibility of total decontamination.

    Worse still, the largely unquantifiable costs to human health, the environment and to local economies are rarely considered or compensated. Many of these effects are irreversible, whilst the effects beyond the region concerned are impossible to calculate.

    For persistent and bioaccumulative substances these effects can be global, as many of them can be transported far beyond their source, via ocean currents and atmospheric deposition, and have even accumulated in the polar regions of the Earth.

    In those parts of the world where industrialisation is booming, there is a danger that expenditure on even basic environmental measures - let alone the avoidance of hazardous substances through substitution - could be seen as an unnecessary impediment to economic growth.

    The case studies from the Global North show that attempts to 'save money' by opting for the cheapest ways to use and dispose of hazardous chemicals in the short term, can ultimately translate into extremely high costs and losses in the future. These costs then have to be borne by someone, and this is either the companies concerned or the taxpayer - often both.

    Download Section 2

  • Hidden Consequences

    An opportunity to act, before it is too late

    If we fail to learn from the mistakes of the past, then we are doomed to repeat them. This is especially the case in those regions of the world where much chemical and manufacturing production has now relocated - namely Asia and the wider 'Global South'. Policy makers in these regions have the opportunity to avoid making some of the same grave mistakes that were made in Global North, and 'leapfrog' over the conventional approach of waste and wastewater end-of-pipe treatment to focus on prevention first.

    A precautionary approach would help protect their waters - and the livelihoods of all those who rely on those waters - both now and for future generations. 'Prevention at source' policies have enormous benefits, not only in terms of protecting the environment, but also in terms of innovation and economic competitiveness - for individual companies and at the level of a region or state.

    The message could not be clearer. Governments have a choice. Should they expose their citizens and the environment to hazardous toxic pollution, and condemn future generations to pay for the management of contaminated sediments, whose full and final costs are incalculable? Or should they instead commit to a 'Toxic-Free Future', and take precautionary action to support truly sustainable innovation, and progressively eliminate the use and release of hazardous substances down to 'zero discharge'?

    Download Section 3

  • Hidden Consequences

    Find out more:

    For more details on why Greenpeace is supporting these principles and policies please see our accompanying Policy Questions and Answers document

    For further information regarding our work to build a Toxic-Free Future and additional questions concerning this report, please download the Media Q&A Pack

    To refer to any of the endnotes contained within the report, please download the Endnotes document

    For all additional media enquiries, please contact:

    Blueprint towards
    'zero discharge' of
    hazardous chemicals

    The only way to address these hidden dangers in our water is through a preventative approach: Taking action to phase-out the use and discharge of hazardous chemicals, rather than attempting to control the damage with end-of-pipe treatment methods.

    To this end, Greenpeace is calling for governments to adopt a political commitment to 'zero discharge' of all hazardous chemicals within one generation, based on the precautionary principle and a preventative approach to chemicals management. This commitment must be matched with an implementation plan containing intermediate short term targets, a dynamic list of priority hazardous substances requiring immediate action, and a publicly available register of data about discharge emissions and losses of hazardous substances, such as a Pollutant Release and Transfer Register (PRTR).

    The time in which to act is short, but the benefits to people, planet and profit of positive and preventative measures against industrial pollution will be felt both immediately, and for generations to come.

    Download Section 3

Download Full Report

Industrial pollution is a severe threat to water resources around the world, particularly in the Global South where the view prevails that pollution is the price to pay for progress.

The only way to address these hidden dangers in our water is through a preventative approach: Taking action to phase out the use and discharge of hazardous chemicals, rather than attempting to control the damage with end-of-pipe treatment methods. Greenpeace's call for 'zero discharge' is built upon three decades of exposing and addressing the problems of hazardous chemicals. Case studies from the Global North show the extent to which persistant and bioaccumulative chemicals have contaminated entire regions. If we fail to learn from the mistakes of the past, then we are doomed to repeat them. This is especially the case in those regions of the world where much chemical and manufacturing production has now relocated - namely, Asia and the wider Global South.

Greenpeace is calling on governments to adopt a political commitment to 'zero discharge' of all hazardous chemicals within one generation, based on the precautionary principle and a preventative approach to chemicals management.

Download the full report and find out more about our detox campaign.