Water pollution is a rising global crisis that directly affects health, economic development and food security. Although other anthropogenic activities such as human settlement (urbanization) and industry are major contributors, agriculture has become the dominant source of pollution in many countries. Degrading water quality is a significant threat to food safety and food security.
Currently, it is estimated that some 2 250 km3/year of effluent is discharged into the environment, 330 km3/year as urban wastewater, 660 km3/year as industrial wastewater (including cooling water) and 1 260 km3/year as agricultural drainage.
The capacity of soils to store, buffer and degrade waterborne contaminants is being exceeded by anthropogenic treatment of soils on cropland and pasture to the point where elevated levels of nitrogen, salinity and biological oxygen demand (BOD) in fresh water are widespread.
Agricultural use of reactive nitrogen synthetic fertilizer has continued to increase since 2000, from almost 81 million tonnes, to a peak of 110 million tonnes in 2017, with signs of a slight decline in 2018. Industrial fertilizer production and biological fixation of nitrogen in agriculture account for 80 percent of anthropogenic nitrogen fixation. The global growth rate of phosphorus use in agriculture is modest, from 32 million tonnes in 2000 to a peak of 45 million tonnes in 2016, followed by a marked decline. Estimates indicate the total phosphorus input to water bodies from anthropogenic use is about 1.47 million tonnes annually, with 62 percent from point sources (domestic and industrial) and 38 percent from diffuse sources (agriculture). Agricultural use of potash has risen from 22 million tonnes in 2000 to a peak of almost 39 million tonnes in 2018. The impact on freshwater eutrophication is not marked, as it is for nitrogen and phosphorus, although it contributes to salinity from run-off.
Of particular concern is pollution caused by emerging chemical contaminants, including pesticides, livestock pharmaceuticals and plastics, and potential antimicrobial resistance for which there is currently little regulation or monitoring. Map S.11 illustrates global regions of concern by pesticides.