Yes, You Can Drink the Water: Clean and Safe Public Water Supplies. Microplastics, A Plea for a Modest Post Coronavirus Priority

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By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.eats to the world beyond the coronavirus pandeomic.  

Jared Diamond had a piece in today’s FT riffing on four existential threats that  loom over the  the world once the coronavirus pandemic, is contained.Jared Diamond: lessons from a pandemic.

I won’t summarize his concerns here, as I believe  this piece is unlocked from the normal FT paywall as part of their free coronavirus coverage, and thus interested readers can read it themselves.

But his article set me to thinking about issues that will remain in a post-coronavirus world.  As I’ve previously written, lockdowns have concentrated our minds on how what we call normal life obscured the natural world (see COVID-19 Lockdowns: Birds Singing, Flamingoes Flocking, Dolphins Dancing, Cleaner Air and Water). Less attention has been paid to problems that continue to fester regardless of when or how lockdowns are lifted,


An example, and another spur for this post: a Guardian article that suggested the problem  of microplastics in the ocean was vastly undereestimated, Microplastic pollution in oceans vastly underestimated – study. Per that article:

The abundance of microplastic pollution in the oceans is likely to have been vastly underestimated, according to research that suggests there are at least double the number of particles as previously thought.

Scientists trawled waters off the coasts of the UK and US and found many more particles using nets with a fine mesh size than when using coarser ones usually used to filter microplastics. The addition of these smaller particles to global estimates of surface microplastics increases the range from between 5tn and 50tn particles to 12tn-125tn particles, the scientists say.

Plastic pollution is known to harm the fertility, growth and survival of marine life. Smaller particles are especially concerning because they are the same size as the food eaten by zooplankton, which underpin the marine food chain and play an important role in regulating the global climate. The new data suggests there may be more microplastic particles than zooplankton in some waters.

“The estimate of marine microplastic concentration could currently be vastly underestimated,” said Prof Pennie Lindeque, of the Plymouth Marine Laboratory in the UK, who led the research.

She said there may well be even smaller particles than those caught by the fine mesh nets, meaning the numbers “could be even larger again”.

Another new study shows how microplastics have entered the food chain in rivers, with birds found to be consuming hundreds of particles a day via the aquatic insects on which they feed.

Microplastic pollution has contaminated the whole planet, from Arctic snow and mountain soils to many rivers and the deepest oceans. It is also being consumed and inhaled by people, and the health impacts are as yet unknown.

Research published in the last month has found microplastics in greater quantities than ever before on the seabed and suggested that hundreds of thousands of tonnes of microplastics could be blowing ashore on the ocean breeze every year.

Cleaning Up Municipal Water Supplies

As dire as the microplastics situation is, that’s not the main focus of this post. What I want to discuss is a study that says a good chunk of our current problem with plastics could be alleviated or perhaps eliminated if governments would once again focus om providing clean water for their populations – especially in places such as the major metros of India where governments have consistently failed to do so, for hundreds of years, well beyond when other cities – London, New York, Paris – made provision of clean water a civic priority.

I’ll again rely on an another account in the Guardian, Improve water supply in poorer nations to cut plastic use, say experts, to summarize another worthwhile study:

Focusing on improving the water supply in developing nations could be a powerful way to fight the scourge of plastic waste in the oceans, experts have said, highlighting that the issue has received little attention.

People in developing countries, and many middle-income countries, often rely on plastic bottles of water as their piped water supply can be contaminated or unsafe, or perceived as such.

Hundreds of billions of plastic water bottles are produced each year. In rich countries, they are a thoughtless luxury, but in many poor and emerging economies people have few alternatives.

“It is an issue, as the water supply system has problems with water quality in many countries,” said Brajesh Dubey, professor of civil engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur, co-author of a new “blue paper” on the problem of plastic waste in the oceans.

“The obvious solution is building a safe water supply infrastructure which ensures quality supply.”

The extent of the growing plague of plastic waste in our oceans has been laid bare in recent years, prompting widespread calls for action around the world. Cleaning up plastic waste that is already in the sea has been one of the main areas of focus so far.

This is necessary to remove the menace to marine life, but methods of preventing plastic waste from reaching the ocean in the first place must also take priority, according to the report published on Wednesday.

At the moment, Indians are breathing easier as the nationwide lockdown has improved air quality to levels not see in anyone’s lifetime. Yet little attention has been placed on retaining some of these air quality benefits once the situation returns to ‘normal’ conditions, Virtually no attention has been paid to other resource quality issues. And India is only one of many countries that are in desperate need of greater attention to such concerns. These are matters that need urgent national attention and alas, at the moment, I think they will not get the attention they deserve. And our multilateral institutions largely ignore such  issues.

We’re a long way away from where we can drink the water worldwide with comfort and confidence – so forgive me my aspirational headline. Yet it is certainly an attainable goal, upon which countries could focus, and one which when attained would also stop depositing  microplastics in our oceans.

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