Water pollution could affect 5.5 billion people worldwide by the end of the century

A simulation study led by researchers at Utrecht University in the Netherlands found that surface water pollution could affect 5.5 billion people worldwide by 2100. The findings were published July 17 in Nature Water.

Researchers say that as the population grows, improving water quality requires improved infrastructure. Photo by John Wessels/AFP via Getty

The researchers mapped surface water quality in three different scenarios for future climate and socio-economic development. The results show that sub-Saharan Africa is likely to be the region most affected by surface water pollution, regardless of the climate and socioeconomic scenario of the future.

Tafadzwa Mabhaudhi of KwaZulu-Natal University in South Africa, which studies climate change and food security, noted that the study was a temporal and spatial analysis of anecdotal evidence of water quality in sub-Saharan Africa.

Joshua Edokpayi, a researcher in water quality management at Wenda University in South Africa, added: “If there is not enough investment in water infrastructure or water treatment, it means that we are sitting on a ticking time bomb. ”

The United Nations estimates that 2 billion people worldwide lack access to safe drinking water. Surface water pollution has been most severe in East Asia and the Pacific over the past few decades, driven by increasing demand for water due to industrialization and population growth in regions without corresponding water infrastructure.

To study the implications of similar trends for the future, the researchers used existing global water quality models to model water quality over 20 time periods from 2005 to 2100.

They considered three future climate scenarios used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, namely SSP1-RCP2.6, SSP5-RCP8.5, and SSP3-RCP7.0. SSP stands for “Shared Socioeconomic Pathway” and takes into account various social factors, while the RCP describes a “representative concentration pathway,” which refers to the trajectory of greenhouse gas concentrations.

For example, SSP5-RCP8.5 represents a “business-as-usual” rapid development path with high radiative forcing levels, defined by continued strong technological advances with limited focus on global warming. SSP1-RCP2.6 defines an optimistic “green” scenario for the future under a low radiative forcing level and low mitigation pressure pathway, with sustainability as a global priority.

The team found that in all cases, water quality became worse in emerging economies in South America and sub-Saharan Africa. In contrast, in many wealthy countries, levels of organic pollutants and pathogenic substances tend to decline as water treatment improves.

SSP3-RCP7.0 describes the coming “bumpy road”, with increasing competition between countries and slow economic and environmental progress, which is a worst-case scenario. This scenario is characterized by slow economic growth, severe climate change and population expansion, leading to worse water quality management.

In this model, organic water pollution in sub-Saharan Africa will more than quadruple by 2100, affecting 1.5 billion people. Deterioration in water quality in South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa has also led to increased pollution in these regions.

This is surprising. Corresponding author Edward Jones, a geoscientist at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, said that while a “business-as-usual” scenario would lead to an unsustainable dependence on fossil fuels for social development, it could also lead to improved water infrastructure, which could improve water quality.

Both Edokpayi and Mabhaudhi said the study highlights the need for better implementation of regional water quality policies. According to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, everyone in the world should have access to safe drinking water by 2030. On a smaller scale, however, Mabhaudhi said, there is a disconnect between global policy and reality, and the world needs to band together to “put the outcomes of people and the planet at the center.”

Edokpayi believes that pollution knows no borders and that cross-border cooperation is essential. (Source: China Science News Xin Yu)

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