Over two-thirds of the Earth’s surface is water.  It comes in all kinds of forms from seasonal streams to mighty oceans.  Most of it (97%) is salty.  Only a tiny part of it (3%) is fresh.  All of it is increasingly suffering from pollution.  That should be a major source of concern for everyone.

Why does water pollution matter?

Let’s start with the obvious fact that humans need fresh, clean water to drink.  In fact, humans need a constant supply of it since we can only go a very short time without it. 

Then there’s the fact that water is essential for plant and animal (including fish) life.  We need these for food and other vital purposes.  That’s even before we get to water’s use in industrial processes.

Water can be and currently is cleaned before it is used for certain purposes (like drinking).  This is certainly better than nothing.  It is, however, nowhere near as good as keeping the water clean, to begin with. 

Firstly, it uses more energy.  Secondly, it means that plants and animals are still stuck with the effects of dirty water.  Thirdly it means humans can only access clean water in certain places. 

For example, there was once a time when humans could drink from groundwater sources just like animals do.  Now, this would typically only be done in an absolute emergency.

What’s more, cleaning water isn’t necessarily a simple process.  Solids can be filtered out easily but liquids such as chemicals can be much harder to remove. 

Some cannot be removed at all (with current technology).  To make matters worse, pollution can be an ongoing process as groundwater is contaminated by the pollution contained in rainwater (e.g. acid rain).

A brief history of water pollution

Historically, the main source of water pollution was human waste and general rubbish.  This was often dumped, untreated, into the water precisely because people knew it would be carried away. 

When the human population was small and pre-industrialized, this wasn’t really a problem.  Over time, however, this approach began to create serious issues.

By the early 19th century, water pollution had become a major problem around the world, particularly in cities.  Probably the most notorious example of this was Victorian London. 

In addition to being a hotspot for cholera, it was also the location of the “Great Stink” of 1958.

This happened in July and August when the exceptionally hot summer weather exacerbated the effects of severe water pollution.  The result was as bad as it sounds. 

It’s not clear if the noxious miasma caused any illnesses let alone fatalities.  It is, however, now firmly established that the pollution in the Thames directly contributed to fatal illnesses such as cholera.

The reaction to the Great Stink has arguably set the tone for the management of water pollution ever since.  It shocked the authorities into taking action. 

Sadly, however, the action was essential to keep on polluting while making sure that the pollution was dumped further away from London.

London itself carried on polluting.  As it became too expensive to be a home for industry, the pollution eased.  Even so, it continues to be a problem today. 

In particular, the issue of sewage in the Thames caused serious problems for London when it hosted the 2012 Olympics.  This is not remotely unusual.  Water pollution is a standard issue for Olympic host cities.

The current state of water pollution

Currently, if there’s one source of water pollution that stands out above all others, it is, of course, plastic.  While this, understandably, often makes the headlines, it’s, sadly, by no means the only issue. 

Agricultural and industrial processes are another huge source of pollution as is human waste. 

What’s more, there is an increasing level of crossover between industrial waste and household waste.  For example, most households will use chemicals for at least some parts of their cleaning. 

Some households may do most of their cleaning with chemicals.  They may also use the sewage system to dispose of waste which should really go to landfills.

Water pollution may also occur as the result of catastrophic accidents.  Oil spills are probably the most visible example of these.  Radioactive discharge is another. 

Regrettably, some of this contamination is deliberate.  For example, shortly after the end of the 2020 Olympics, Japan announced that it was going to dump over 1M tonnes of contaminated water into the Pacific.

The challenges of managing water pollution

There are two main issues with managing water pollution.  The first is that, unsurprisingly, the long-term benefits of preventing water pollution often conflict with the short-term interests of large corporations. 

For example, in the UK, members of parliament voted in favour of allowing businesses to continue to dump raw sewage into groundwater and seas.

MPs essentially said that there were sufficient protective measures in place already and that it would cost too much to stop sewage discharge in the short term. 

The first point has been strongly disputed by environmentalists.  The second is, of course, a matter of opinion.  Essentially, it boils down to a person’s own view of the cost: benefit ratio.

It is, however, worth pointing out that cutting back on measures to prevent water pollution can have catastrophic outcomes even in the 21st century. 

Probably the most notorious modern instance of this was in the Flint water crisis of 2014-2019.  This was caused by the local authority failing to maintain lead pipes correctly with the result that lead leaked into the city’s drinking water.

The second is that water, by its very nature, transcends boundaries. 

On the one hand, this means that everyone has a stake in protecting it. 

On the other hand, it makes it difficult to assign accountability for water pollution to any one party.  It can also be virtually impossible to take effective action against polluters operating across national (or even state) boundaries.

What you can do

Combating water pollution is certainly challenging but it needs to be done. 

In fact, it’s literally a matter of survival.  As an individual, you can take a stand against water pollution at both a macro and micro level.  At a macro level, use your voice whenever you can. 

For example, contact lawmakers and join conservation organizations.  Educate people you know and encourage them to get involved.

At a micro level, be the change you want to see in the world.  In other words, adapt your own behaviour so that you are making a positive difference instead of a negative one.  Here are five tips to help.

Cut back on plastic

There are all kinds of great reasons for doing this.  One of them is that you’ll conserve the water which would have been used to make it.  You’ll also reduce the quantity of plastic which ends up in the water supply. 

You might think that the plastic in the water is there due to people throwing it away carelessly or through accident.  There is a certain level of truth in this. 

Sadly, however, even plastic that is disposed of responsibly can end up creating water pollution.  Either it can be lifted by the air and dropped in water or it can be dissolved by rain and end up in the water.

Additionally, be very careful about buying personal care/cosmetic products from international retailers.  They may still contain microbeads.  As their name suggests, microbeads are tiny pieces of plastic. 

They are a notorious source of plastic pollution and hence have been banned in many countries.

Unfortunately, there is a difference between many and all.  Microbeads are still very much used globally. 

This means that retailers operating in certain countries can sell products containing them perfectly legally. 

More problematically, international retailers making online sales in the UK may still sell products with microbeads either because they don’t know the law or because they assume it won’t be enforced.

Cut back on the chemicals you use

There are some parts of the home when it’s reasonable to use chemical cleaners at least some of the time.  These would typically be certain areas of the kitchen and bathroom, where hygiene needs to be the top priority. 

Even here, though, you probably won’t need to use chemical cleaners all the time.  Hot water really is a great disinfectant.

Outside of these areas, natural cleaners, or at least very gentle chemicals, will probably do at least as good a job as chemical cleaners. 

Steam cleaners are great investments as they can give a deep-down, bacteria-busting clean just with the power of water.

Likewise, in your garden, keep the harsh chemicals for when there is really no other option.  Generally, you can manage weeds through a combination of planning and manual weeding. 

In particular, put a fence or wall around your garden if you can.  This may sound like an odd tip but they act as barriers to wind-blown seeds.

On the subject of barriers, natural barriers are generally your best friends when it comes to weed control (and pest control). 

In particular, mulch and straw will both smother weeds and discourage pests, especially slithery ones like slugs and snails.  Ground-cover plants are also good for overpowering weeds.

Try to avoid using salt to defrost paths in winter.  It’s really convenient but it inevitably winds up in the water supply (as the snow and ice melt). 

This may seem like a minor issue in comparison with other forms of pollution but it can be horrendous for the local freshwater ecology.  Consider using grit or sand instead.

Dispose of waste properly

If you must use chemicals, make sure you follow the instructions for using and disposing of them safely.  Depending on where you live, you may need to pay for the disposal of waste chemicals.  It is worth doing this. 

Leaving aside the fact that it’s probably a legal requirement for you to do so, the short-term cost of proper disposal is likely to be far lower than the long-term cost of pollution.

With the exception of human waste and toilet paper, never put any non-liquid waste down the drain.  That includes oil, grease and fat as well as solids like paper (e.g. kitchen paper and wipes). 

Take claims about “flushability” with a large pinch of salt.  They have become a major contributor to “fatbergs” to the point where U.S. authorities are starting to take legal action against them.

Washington and Oregon have already mandated that manufacturers label wipes “Do not flush”.  California, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts and Minnesota are all expected to do likewise. 

Alabama and the U.S. Federal government are both looking at the issue. 

So far there is no news on this topic from other parts of the world but it seems likely other authorities will follow suit.

Do proper maintenance

This may seem like another odd tip but there is a good reason for it.  Maintaining your possessions (or communal possessions) extends their lifespan. 

At a minimum, this means that they’ll need to be replaced less often.  This minimizes the pollution caused by manufacturing processes.

In some cases, maintaining your possessions can help to stop them from creating avoidable pollution.  For example, if you maintain your car properly, then it’s much less likely that the fluids will leak.

With that said, products do tend to need to be of a certain quality to stand up to maintenance. 

For example, “fast fashion” clothing tends to get beyond repair very quickly.  It’s therefore advisable to keep this in mind when making purchase decisions. 

Often paying a little extra for higher-quality items is better for your finances as well as for the environment.

Use recycled products as much as possible

This tip follows similar logic to the previous one.  In general, it’s easier to recycle existing products than to create new ones from scratch. 

This means that the recycling process uses less energy and resources and also that it creates less pollution of all kinds, including water pollution.

In particular, try to use recycled textiles and paper as much as you can.  There is a huge difference between the environmental impact of creating these from scratch and the environmental impact of recycling them.  Similarly,