Water pollution, a grim reality?

Feature story - March 21, 2007
Today’s celebration of World Water Day with the theme “Coping with water scarcity” is a reminder of the need to conserve and protect the world’s fresh water sources, if we are to avert an impending crisis concerning humankind’s most valuable resource.

Treated wastewater being discharged to public canal from a combined wastewater treatment plant of Navanakorn Industrial Estate.

Water sustains life. The extremely rich biodiversity of Southeast Asia is a testament to the abundance of freshwater systems and high rainfallthat support life. The Mekong River of Mainland Southeast Asia, Chao Phraya of Thailand, and the other rivers and lakes of the region are important sources of food, water for various uses, medicines, energy, minerals, etc. More importantly, these surface waters as well as the underground aquifers provide communities with drinking water.

Unfortunately, the development path that countries in Southeast Asia have taken is one that is highly disruptive to the hydrological cycles. Aquifers, which store precious ground water, have lost their water-holding capacities due to massive deforestation such as those experienced in Indonesia and the Philippines. Over-exploitation of water sources for industrial and domestic purposes has contributed to the rapid depletion of already limited freshwater resources. These disruptions have severely compromised the ability of the forests to "catch" and then "shed" the water into streams, rivers and reservoirs, as well as the capacity of aquifers to recharge.

Data from the World Bank shows global per capita renewable freshwater resource of 7,045 cubic meters per year. Within Southeast Asia, there is a wide disparity among countries. Lao PDR and Malaysia have the highest per capita renewable freshwater resource per year at 35,049 cubic meters and 26,074 cubic meters, respectively. Thailand and the Philippines are among the lowest with 1,907 and 1,854 cubic meters, respectively. Meanwhile, Singapore has no renewable freshwater resource and is importing its water to meet its demands.

Thus, water scarcity is an issue that communities and governments must face and address in the next few years. Some quarters speculate that the next world war will be fought over water. Hostilities are starting to erupt not only in water-starved regions in the world but also in areas where abundant freshwater sources have conflicting uses such as in the Mekong River. At a smaller scale, communities are now battling companies for rights and access to drinking water.

But an equally alarming reality is that water quality has been steadily declining through the years. Siltation from deforestation, mining and other land conversion activities, saltwater intrusion from over-extraction of water from underground aquifers, biological pollution from untreated sewage, chemical pollution from industrial and agricultural sources, as well as indiscriminate dumping of garbage on water bodies, have all contributed to degrading water quality. Pollution has made already scarce water resources even scarcer. According to the Asian Development Bank, one out of three Asians still do not have access to a sustainable source of safe drinking water and 50% still do not have sanitation services.

Water pollution, a grim reality?

With dirty, polluted water come increasing cases of water borne diseases as well as other sickness caused by chemical pollution.  In 1992, the World Health Organization pegged the number of infant deaths per year from exposure to contaminated waters at 500,000 in Southeast Asia, while a study in 1997 by the ADB identified lead from industrial sources as the major contaminant in water sources.

While there have been many efforts to clean up dirty bodies of water and waterways, and many governments have made attempts to enforce water standards (such as the Philippines' Clean Water Act, or Thailand's Pollution Control Act), these can be at best only interim measures.

If we are to protect our valuable water resources, changes have to be made in the way we see and treat our environment. The real solutions to protecting water quality must begin at the sources of pollution. One such effective and lasting measure is the implementation of clean production processes. By eliminating the use of toxics from the very first steps of production, pollution of water sources can be effectively prevented.

Our constant exposure to polluted fresh water sources-clogged, or foul smelling river and lakes, as well as contaminated groundwater-have made water pollution a given, a reality we have learned to accept. Thus, we focus on technology meant to 'clean up' pollution rather than prevent it, and draft laws that merely regulate the extent of toxicity in water, rather than prohibit it completely.

An equally alarming reality is that water quality has been steadily declining through the years. Pollution has made already scarce water resources even scarcer.

We must learn to unlearn this 'reality.'  Clean water is the given we must protect if we are to ensure that our water will continue to sustain life well into the future. 

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