Although the United States faces its own set of water woes, they are nothing compared to what many people face in other parts of the world. The 2016 summer Olympics in Brazil highlighted this problem. Many athletes grew concerned over the prospect of having to swim in chemically polluted water. And while the summer games seemed to go off without a hitch, the water in the Olympic diving pool did mysterious turn a strange shade of green for one of the events. (another turned orange) While Brazil’s water problems got a lot of media coverage here in the U.S., the bigger concern should be that native Brazilians are exposed to heavily polluted water on a regular basis.
Around the world, diarrhea caused by unsafe drinking water is the second leading cause of child death. (Heyworth, 2011) In developing countries, 70% of industrial waste is dumped into the water supply with no treatment whatsoever. (Jacquot, 2009)
Reporting on the conditions in Pakistan, David Herbert writes that “Almost two-thirds of the water for public supply – that is, drinking, bathing and other household uses – is contaminated with everything form untreated sewage to industrial waste to pesticides and fertilizers.” In the city of Lahore, an estimated 97% of industries using hazardous chemicals do not adequately treat their wastewater. (Herbert, 2010)
Across the border in neighboring India, things aren’t a whole lot better. Families are having to contend with surface water that is heavily polluted and groundwater that is tainted with arsenic. India’s legal maximum for arsenic (50 micrograms per liter) is 5-times higher than the World Health Organization’s standard of 10 micrograms per liter. Yet many in India are exposed to levels far beyond this, and it’s having a serious effect on their health. In one contaminated spot in India, a man was covered in scabs and open lesions. His elder brother had lost a foot to rot, a sister was sickly and another brother had died in his thirties – all the result of arsenic poisoning in the wells. The family tried moving to another town to escape the crisis, but the wells were also tainted there. (Daigle, 2016)
India’s water crisis is a microcosm of what happens when you combine careless water planning with heavy industrial pollution. The country’s troubles began with heavily polluted surface water. So residents turned to groundwater to avoid being poisoned by bacteria-infested surface water, which was laced with raw sewage and agricultural runoff. In a bid to save lives, residents began drilling wells with UNICEF money, which at the time was “hailed as an inexpensive and lifesaving solution.” (ibid, p. 45) But locals only drilled these wells 50 to 200 meters, stopping when water was found, which happened to correspond with layers of the earth that are most likely to contain arsenic, producing a tainted well. With so many wells being drilled, the terrain underneath started looking like Swiss cheese. As people dig more and more wells they intersect with underground streams, so that if one well is contaminated it can slowly pollute the whole subterranean flow. That is where we are now. India is rapidly running out of usable water, having polluted its rivers through industry and its groundwater through arsenic.