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River pollution threatens health, livelihoods of millions in Asia

New Delhi : Hundreds of millions of people in Asia are at risk of contracting life-threatening diseases as up to a half of all river stretches in the region are affected by severe pathogen pollution, a new report by the United Nations has warned.

Health and livelihoods of some 323 million people in Asia, Africa and Latin America are threatened by increasing levels of pollution in rivers, with Asia being the hardest hit, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) said in “A Snapshot of the World’s Water Quality: Towards a Global Assessment".

The report noted that some 3.4 million people worldwide die every year from water-borne diseases, many of which “are due to the presence of human waste in water."

The worrying rise in the pollution of surface waters in Asia, Africa and Latin America also threatens to damage vital sources of food and harm the continents' economies, the UNEP said.

By making access to quality water even more difficult, water pollution also threatens to breed further inequality, hitting the most vulnerable - women, children and the poor - the hardest.

Between 1990 and 2010, microbial contamination and pollution from fertilizer and petroleum increased in more than half of rivers in Africa, Asia and Latin America, and salinity levels rose in nearly a third, the report said.

It estimated that severe pathogen pollution affected about a quarter of river stretches in Africa and Latin America, and half of those in Asia. The pollution puts 164 million people at risk of water-borne diseases in Africa, 134 million in Asia and 25 million in Latin America.

"The increasing amount of wastewater being dumped into our surface waters is deeply troubling," said UNEP Chief Scientist Jacqueline McGlade.

"Access to quality water is essential for human health and human development. Both are at risk if we fail to stop the pollution."

According to the report, the increase in pollution is attributed to factory waste, runoff from agricultural fertilizers and pesticides, and an increase in untreated sewage discharges into rivers and lakes, which are the main source of drinking water for up to 90 per cent of the population in some countries.

In some countries, more than 90 per cent of the population relies on surface waters as their source of drinking water. These waters - which are also used to prepare food, to irrigate crops and for recreation - pose a major threat to human health, when contaminated.

The solution is not only to build more sewers but to treat wastewater.

There is still time to tackle water pollution. Better water monitoring, especially in developing countries, is needed to understand the scale of the challenge around the world and to identify key hotspots, the report said.

"There is no doubt that we have the tools needed to tackle this growing problem," said McGlade. "It is now time to use these tools to combat what is slowly becoming one of the greatest threats to human health and development around the world."

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