It is hardly a surprise that the freshwater resources of the Asia-Pacific region are facing high levels of pollutions. According to a UN report, over 80 percent of the region’s rivers are in ‘poor health’. The statistics are alarming. Freshwater resources, such as rivers, have become contaminated with a number of pollutants, including organic, nutrients, dissolved salts, heavy metals, pesticides and industrial chemicals. Most of these sources of pollution are a product of – and can be contained by – human activity. The principal cause for this high level of pollution is the fact that almost 80 percent of water discharged into freshwater bodies is done with little to no treatment. This is not an unfamiliar situation to us in Pakistan. River Ravi that flows through Lahore has become a toxic sewage dump – but despite years of campaigning for proper treatment of waste there has been no effort to create a single treatment plant. The Indus river basin is amongst the highest polluted freshwater zones. One of the major factors is increased salinity, which is a product of the larger challenge of salinity which is making arable land unusable across the Indus Basin.
High levels of salt create conditions for the growth of bacteria known to cause cholera among other waterborne diseases. The presence of heavy metals is another major factor for long-term disabilities in children and adults. According to available data, at least 1.8 million deaths in the Asia-Pacific region occur due to the polluted water in the region. There is no doubt that only concrete commitments by all countries in the region can help improve the health of our water supply. With at least 1.7 billion people in the region still without access to basic sanitation, we know that our governments have failed. The dumping of untreated urban and rural waste into river bodies is a major problem that remains unaddressed. The trouble with water pollution is that very little of it is available to the naked eye. This allows for a situation in which people continue to consume unhealthy water, the effects of which are to further cripple the failing health systems in most of these countries. We are told ‘water is life’ but this is not a commitment that is being made by our governments. The blame cannot be pushed to regulators alone, though. If our future is at stake, then there is some responsibility that falls on us too. The industrialist who dumps untreated chemicals and the farmer who uses pesticides can stop their contribution to the pollution of our rivers. The trouble is that there is little incentive for individuals to do more. This incentive will have to come collectively. The people of the region must hope that serious commitments are made to solving the problem of fresh water contamination. Our health and lives are at risk.