Water Pollution

What is water pollution? Water pollution can be defined in many ways. Usually, it means one or more substances have built up in water to such an extent that they cause problems for animals or people. Oceans, lakes, rivers, and other inland waters can naturally clean up a certain amount of pollution by dispersing it harmlessly. If you poured a cup of black ink into a river, the ink would quickly disappear into the river's much larger volume of clean water. The ink would still be there in the river, but in such a low concentration that you would not be able to see it. At such low levels, the chemicals in the ink probably would not present any real problem. However, if you poured gallons of ink into a river every few seconds through a pipe, the river would quickly turn black. The chemicals in the ink could very quickly have an effect on the quality of the water. This, in turn, could affect the health of all the plants, animals, and humans whose lives depend on the river.

What are the main types of water pollution? When we think of Earth's water resources, we think of huge oceans, lakes, and rivers. Water resources like these are called surface waters. The most obvious type of water pollution affects surface waters. For example, a spill from an oil tanker creates an oil slick that can affect a vast area of the ocean.

Not all of Earth's water sits on its surface, however. A great deal of water is held in underground rock structures known as aquifers, which we cannot see and seldom think about. Water stored underground in aquifers is known as groundwater. Aquifers feed our rivers and supply much of our drinking water. They too can become polluted, for example, when weed killers used in people's gardens drain into the ground. Groundwater pollution is much less obvious than surface-water pollution, but is no less of a problem. In 1996, a study in Iowa in the United States found that over half the state's groundwater wells were contaminated with weed killers.

Surface waters and groundwater are the two types of water resources that pollution affects. There are also two different ways in which pollution can occur. If pollution comes from a single location, such as a discharge pipe attached to a factory, it is known as point-source pollution. Other examples of point source pollution include an oil spill from a tanker, a discharge from a smoke stack (factory chimney), or someone pouring oil from their car down a drain. A great deal of water pollution happens not from one single source but from many different scattered sources. This is called nonpoint-source pollution.

What are the causes of water pollution? Most water pollution doesn't begin in the water itself. Take the oceans: around 80 percent of ocean pollution enters our seas from the land. Virtually any human activity can have an effect on the quality of our water environment. When farmers fertilise the fields, the chemicals they use are gradually washed by rain into the groundwater or surface waters nearby. Sometimes the causes of water pollution are quite surprising. Chemicals released by smokestacks (chimneys) can enter the atmosphere and then fall back to earth as rain, entering seas, rivers, and lakes and causing water pollution. Water pollution has many different causes and this is one of the reasons why it is such a difficult problem to solve.

What are the effects of water pollution? Some people believe pollution is an inescapable result of human activity: they argue that if we want to have factories, cities, ships, cars, oil, and coastal resorts, some degree of pollution is almost certain to result. In other words, pollution is a necessary evil that people must put up with if they want to make progress. Fortunately, not everyone agrees with this view. One reason people have woken up to the problem of pollution is that it brings costs of its own that undermine any economic benefits that come about by polluting.

Take oil spills, for example. They can happen if tankers are too poorly built to survive accidents at sea. But the economic benefit of compromising on tanker quality brings an economic cost when an oil spill occurs. The oil can wash up on nearby beaches, devastate the ecosystem, and severely affect tourism. The main problem is that the people who bear the cost of the spill (typically a small coastal community) are not the people who caused the problem in the first place (the people who operate the tanker). Yet, arguably, everyone who puts gasoline (petrol) into their car—or uses almost any kind of petroleum-fueled transport—contributes to the problem in some way. So oil spills are a problem for everyone, not just people who live by the coast and tanker operates.

Sewage is another good example of how pollution can affect us all. Sewage discharged into coastal waters can wash up on beaches and cause a health hazard. People who bathe or surf in the water can fall ill if they swallow polluted water—yet sewage can have other harmful effects too: it can poison shellfish (such as cockles and mussels) that grow near the shore. People who eat poisoned shellfish risk suffering from an acute—and sometimes fatal—illness called paralytic shellfish poisoning. Shellfish is no longer caught along many shores because it is simply too polluted with sewage or toxic chemical wastes that have discharged from the land nearby.

Pollution matters because it harms the environment on which people depend. The environment is not something distant and separate from our lives. It's not a pretty shoreline hundreds of miles from our homes or a wilderness landscape that we see only on TV. The environment is everything that surrounds us that gives us life and health. Destroying the environment ultimately reduces the quality of our own lives—and that, most selfishly, is why pollution should matter to all of us.

How can we stop water pollution? There is no easy way to solve water pollution; if there were, it wouldn't be so much of a problem. Broadly speaking, there are three different things that can help to tackle the problem—education, laws, and economics—and they work together as a team.