More people die from unsafe water than from all forms of violence, including war. While surface water quality has improved in many parts of the developed world in recent decades, those improvements face threats from economic growth, population increases and shifts, and climate change. Climate change and its effects increase the possibility of compromised water quality in the U.S. and around the globe. A warming climate produces warmer water temperatures wherein harmful bacteria or algal toxins thrive, creating dangerous conditions for water use and water recreation. The growing frequency and intensity of extreme climate events such as storms and floods means more water runoff, eutrophication, and pollution of water sources and in coastal areas, salt-water contamination of freshwater sources poses a threat to water quality. Those living in poverty, in rural areas, and those who are members of vulnerable communities are disproportionately susceptible to unsafe water. Populations most at risk for lead exposure in drinking water, for example, are low-income, minority status, in urban areas, or residing in buildings constructed prior to 1978. Water quality is also tied to food production. Salinated water, resulting from runoff, poor irrigation systems in dry areas, and intrusion of sea water reduces global agricultural output each year by numbers equal to feeding 170 million people. Finally, water quality runs downstream. Literally. When the quality of a river is compromised, economic growth for areas downstream drops by roughly one-third due to water quality’s central role in recreation and tourism, community health, agriculture, energy production, and manufacturing. Water quality is a wicked problem for many reasons. It is highly connected to other wicked problems such as extreme climate events, infrastructure, and sanitation. It is highly susceptible to the various effects of climate change. Finally, there is a great deal of unknown when it comes to measuring, understanding, and regulating water quality, including the potential harm of emerging pollutants like microplastics and pharmaceuticals. Despite these challenges, a concern over water quality tops public opinion on water issues throughout the U.S. and safe, accessible water is fundamental to human growth and development around the world.
How might we safeguard water quality to provide clean, safe water to everyone?