Whole-of-society, all-encompassing approach needed to turn tide on water contamination

In the current era, global environmental concerns rank among the most significant of challenges. Among these challenges is the predicament of water pollution.

Water stands as a highly vulnerable component of the ecosystem, playing a critical role in both human and industrial progress.

The upsurge in the global population contributes to a heightened need for accessible and uncontaminated water. This invaluable asset necessitates prudent handling to ensure the enduring advancement of the human populace within a setting characterised by limited resources.

In Malaysia, the issue of water pollution poses a grave concern, exerting adverse effects on the endurance of water reservoirs. Moreover, it exerts a detrimental influence on flora and fauna, public wellbeing, and the nation’s financial stability.

This leads to a substantial decline in the overall accessibility of water, given the exorbitant expenses linked to purifying contaminated water, which, in certain cases, remains unsuitable for consumption, even after treatment attempts.

A significant portion of pollution sources can be attributed to human actions, although a fraction originates from natural pollution sources. The challenge of water pollution is mounting, as evidenced by successive annual declines.

The escalating demands and pressures placed on water resources due to population growth, urbanisation, industrialisation, and the expansion of irrigated farming contribute substantially to this escalating water pollution issue.

Yet, water pollution is not a modern-day concern; it has long been intertwined with the processes of urbanisation and modernisation. The ramifications of unsafe water on human health are profound.

According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) 2021 World Water Development report, 829,000 people die each year from diseases like diarrhoea brought on by contaminated drinking water, poor sanitation, and inadequate hand hygiene. Alarmingly, 5.3 per cent of all mortality in this age group is represented by the nearly 300,000 children under five that make up this number.

Primary contributors to water contamination, and solutions

Water pollution represents a notable environmental and public health issue within Malaysia. The swift industrialisation, urban growth, and agricultural practices in the nation have given rise to diverse types of water contamination, which poses adverse impacts on the environment and human wellbeing.

Water pollution is primarily from industrialisation, agricultural practices, natural elements, and inadequate water supply and wastewater treatment infrastructure.

Industrial activities stand as a foremost contributor to water pollution. These industries encompass sectors such as distilleries, tanneries, pulp and paper production, textiles, food processing, iron and steel manufacturing, nuclear operations, and more. During their processes, an array of hazardous chemicals, organic and inorganic compounds, toxic solvents, and volatile organic compounds might be discharged, leading to water contamination.

Water pollution is also intimately linked with agricultural practices. Agriculture represents the predominant origin of diffuse pollution that affects both surface water and groundwater. It accounts for a substantial 70 per cent of global water consumption. Water contamination arises from factors such as pesticides, nitrogen-based fertilisers, and organic residues from farming.

Agricultural operations contribute significantly to water pollution by introducing nitrates, phosphorus, pesticides, soil particles, salts, and pathogens into water bodies. Additionally, the pristine condition of all freshwater ecosystems has been gravely compromised by agricultural activities.

The third facet of water pollution corresponds to urbanisation. Malaysia is currently undergoing rapid urban expansion accompanied by population growth. These developments amplify the demand for water while concurrently escalating the levels of water pollution. These combined dynamics significantly undermine the quality of water in Malaysia.

The improper disposal of refuse into rivers constitutes another factor contributing to water pollution in Malaysia. The deposition of solid waste emerges as a noteworthy environmental challenge within the country, considerably diminishing the ecosystem’s ability to support life. A staggering volume of over 17,000 metric tonnes of waste is generated daily in Malaysia and subsequently disposed of in rivers.

This waste output persistently rises due to population expansion and developmental activities, and the recycling rate remains at less than five per cent. In the fifth aspect, oceans suffer daily harm due to incidents like oil spills, routine maritime activities, surface runoff, and deliberate disposals.

Roughly 12 per cent of the total oil influx into the sea is attributed to oil spills, while the remainder is from shipping operations, runoff, and intentional discharge. Malaysia’s coastal waters are likewise affected by oil contamination arising from bilge pumping and tank cleansing, culminating in the discharge of oil and sediment by large sea vessels.

Additionally, collisions and ship groundings further contribute to oceanic oil pollution. Sixth, global water pollution finds its origins in the practices of industries and industrial facilities around the world. Numerous industrial complexes generate hazardous chemicals and pollutants as waste, with certain operations adhering to proper controls while others lack suitable waste management infrastructure.

In certain instances, industrial waste finds its way into nearby freshwater systems. Objects such as paper, cardboard, plastics, bottles, and metal fragments are directly released from factories and discarded into water bodies.

Another factor contributing to water pollution is the dumping of plastics into oceans. This form of disposal poses a substantial challenge within the realm of solid waste management. Plastics require several centuries to decompose into smaller particles known as microplastics. Consequently, plastics accumulate on the planet, diminishing landfill capacity and contributing to a near-irreversible deterioration of the environment.

A significant proportion of Malaysia’s municipal household waste is frequently discarded into rivers, and the recycling of post-consumer plastics is constrained. Malaysia ranks among the Top 10 countries facing severe risks due to inadequate plastic waste management. The nation generates over 0.94 million tonnes of mishandled plastic waste annually. Almost half of this finds its way into Malaysian seas, exacerbating water pollution.

In order to mitigate water pollution in Malaysia and accomplish sustainable development targets by 2030, a multifaceted strategy is essential. This strategy encompasses government policies, community involvement, technological progress, and public consciousness.

However, certain measures need to be put in place. This includes enhancing the management of waste through the promotion of correct waste disposal and recycling methods. Industries must be urged to adopt cutting-edge technologies for treating wastewater, thereby reducing the release of pollutants. Resources should also be allocated for research aimed at creating economical and effective techniques for treating diverse types of pollutants.

As for sustainable agriculture, there is a need to encourage the adoption of organic farming techniques to curtail the utilisation of detrimental pesticides and fertilisers. Execute well-structured land utilisation strategies to thwart agricultural runoff into water sources, and equip farmers with training and knowledge about sustainable agricultural practices.

There also needs to be campaigns to raise public awareness of the value of water preservation and contamination avoidance. Promote people to incorporate water-saving practises into their daily routines.

To ensure effective pollution removal, there is a need to enhance and preserve sewage and wastewater treatment facilities. Develop proper sanitation facilities in rural areas to prevent open defecation and contamination of water sources.

Focus must also be placed on promoting the adoption of green and sustainable technologies in industries to minimise pollution. Support research and the development of innovative solutions for water treatment and pollution prevention.

It is imperative to also foster collaboration between government agencies, industries, NGOs, and communities to address water pollution collectively. Establish public-private partnerships for funding and implementing pollution control projects.

We must also develop and implement comprehensive water management plans that consider the entire water cycle, including sources, distribution, usage, and treatment. Balance the needs of various sectors, especially agriculture, industry, and domestic, to ensure sustainable water use.

Campaigns for public awareness with the intention of enlightening the population about the significance of conserving water and averting pollution must be initiated.

In addition, we must enhance and sustain sewage and wastewater treatment facilities to guarantee the effective elimination of pollutants. Construct appropriate sanitation infrastructure in rural regions to avert open defecation and the pollution of water reservoirs.

Industries must also be encouraged to embrace eco-friendly and sustainable technologies within industries to curtail pollution. Extend backing for research and the creation of inventive methods for purifying water and forestalling pollution.

Next up is to cultivate cooperation among governmental bodies, industries, non-governmental organisations, and local communities to jointly tackle water pollution. Create partnerships between the public and private sectors to finance and execute projects centred on managing pollution.

We must also advance the concept of comprehensive water management plans that consider the entire water cycle, encompassing sources, distribution, consumption, and purification, while equitably managing the requisites of the varied sectors, notably agriculture, industry, and domestic use, to ensure the prudent utilisation of water.

It is crucial to establish and put into action holistic strategies for water resource management that take into account the complete water cycle, encompassing origins, distribution, utilisation, and purification. Equitably manage the requirements of diverse sectors, with a particular focus on agriculture, industry, and domestic needs, in order to secure the sustainable utilisation of water.

Lastly, there is a need to prompt the embrace of principles tied to the circular economy, wherein waste produced by one sector serves as a valuable resource for another, ultimately diminishing global pollution levels.

Consequently, resolving water pollution and attaining sustainable development stands as a protracted undertaking that demands dedication from all involved parties.

Ultimately, we must adopt an all-encompassing and interconnected approach that takes into account social, economic, and environmental dimensions. Routinely assessing and refining strategies based on their outcomes is also crucial to ensure advancement.

Dr Rulia Akhtar is a Research Fellow at the Ungku Aziz Centre for Development Studies (UAC), Universiti Malaya.

The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the writer and do not necessarily represent that of Twentytwo13.