Student blog: Restoring Natural Bodies of Water – An Emerging Crisis

By Prakash Reddy Chintakunta
Graduate Student, Applied Physics Graduate Program, Rice University

Access to fresh water is becoming a crisis in the modern world. Natural bodies of water are being depleted and contaminated by a lack of adequate water management techniques. In order to sustain our water sources, protecting natural bodies of water is vital. Therefore, everyone should take immediate action to preserve rivers, lakes, ponds and aquifers by introducing initiatives such as proper water management and waste disposal techniques, flood and rainwater control and wastewater mitigation measures.

The United Nations 2015 and 2017 reports on water management found that more than 80% of wastewater is dumped into the environment without proper treatment. In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency determined that 46% of rivers and streams are in biologically poor condition, which has led to the loss of fishing and recreational opportunities. Furthermore, more than 35% of lakes are known to have excess nutrient pollution, including increased nitrogen and phosphorus concentrations that contribute to abnormal algae growth. The main sources of this wastewater are agriculture drainage, industrial effluents and discharge from city municipalities.

Immediate and effective action must be taken on a global scale to preserve natural water sources. Tackling this crisis requires action at both the local and global levels. Individually, we should begin with garbage maintenance such as the proper disposal of trash — including separating dry and wet waste — both at home and at beaches, picnic locations and other public venues. Using fewer plastics and pesticides is a small change that could also be adopted in our daily lives and could have a significant cumulative effect. Additionally, improving knowledge about individual water consumption using smart technologies such as water meters could help conserve water.

At the global level, there are several options for change. All industrial releases into rivers, ponds, lakes and watercourses should be adequately treated. Fertilizers and pesticides that wash away with drain water should also be regulated to prevent overuse. Water bodies and watersheds should have regular maintenance through desilting and groundwater percolation. Disposal of waste, especially plastics, in rivers and oceans should be minimized. Each year, an estimated 8 million tons of plastic ends up in the oceans around the world, and 90% of that plastic comes from just 10 rivers. Furthermore, proper maintenance of the water sources flowing into dams and reservoirs is needed, with a special focus on sustainable, cost-effective and nature-based solutions for water conservation and restoration. Finally, irrigation uses 70% of the world’s fresh water; effective measures to improve water management in irrigation could reduce the need for additional water supplies by 50%.

There are a number of cases where successful water restoration and conservation programs yielded promising economic and environmental benefits. For example, apartment complexes in Bangalore, India, have shown that harvesting rainwater and recycling and reducing water use can lower water bills and even provide residents with water in drought-like summers. Another example is Israel, a country with limited water resources, that is self-sufficient and able to provide its citizens with water through innovative water management techniques and strategic investments like drip irrigation and desalination plants. Israel is also providing its expertise in water management to many Asian and African countries, demonstrating that water can be a source of peacekeeping and cooperation among nations.

Even with global water demand increasing at an annual rate of 1%, many water management experts believe that no new innovations are required for water conservation. Instead, we need to adopt the appropriate existing technologies — like harvesting rainwater and stormwater — to restore and conserve natural bodies of water. Finally, it is important to remember that natural water sources not only provide humans with water, but they also sustain entire ecosystems. Therefore, preserving these resources is critical for sustaining both humanity and nature.

This blog post is part of the Baker Institute Science and Technology Policy Program’s Developing Civic Scientist Leaders project.