New: WRI statement on diversity, equity and inclusion

You are here

In World That Says It’s Cutting Nutrient Pollution, Progress Is Lacking

The world is increasingly worried about water pollution.

Nearly 190 countries agreed upon the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which include a call to halve untreated wastewater by 2030 and reduce marine pollution by 2025. The UN Environment Assembly (UNEA) committed to a “Pollution-Free Planet” and cleaning up a third of the world’s coastlines by 2030. And last year, the International Nitrogen Initiative announced a global goal to cut nitrogen waste in half by 2030.

Nutrient pollution is one of the biggest offenders. When nutrients from fertilizers, untreated sewage and urban areas run off into bodies of water, they fuel harmful algal growth (known as eutrophication) that threatens drinking water and creates “dead zones” that rob water of the oxygen necessary to support marine life.

Despite global goals, progress is lacking in curbing nutrient pollution: More than 700 coastal areas are impacted by eutrophication or dead zones. Climate change and increased development could exacerbate current trends by bringing warmer waters and more nutrient loads from fertilizer and urban land use.

The challenge is to produce more food and energy while decreasing nutrient pollution. Unfortunately, even countries with policies to reduce nutrient pollution are struggling. Three stories illustrate how difficult progress has proven to be around the world:

In India, Toilet Goal May Not Be Enough

More than half of districts in India have groundwater contaminated with nitrates, a form of nitrogen found in fertilizers that that can leach into groundwater. If ingested, nitrates can cause health impairments such as methemoglobinemia (blue-baby syndrome), a deadly condition that starves blood of oxygen.

In addition, more than half of water samples from the Ganges River failed water quality tests due to excessive amounts of untreated sewage being directly discharged into the river. India is vigorously deploying toilets with a goal to end open defecation and have all Indians using toilets by next year. However, even with toilets to collect sewage, a critical problem remains – there’s not infrastructure capable of treating it. A staggering 70 percent of the country’s sewage enters waterbodies untreated.

In the US, Agricultural Runoff Overwhelms Florida

While almost all sewage in the United States is treated, nutrient pollution from agriculture is still a problem.

Last summer, Florida experienced the colorful, terrifying effects of excess nutrients. Residents described the worst red tides and blue-green algal blooms they’d ever seen, stretching more than 100 miles along the Gulf Coast. Red tide algae emit toxins hazardous to aquatic life and humans through shellfish consumption. Fish, turtles and dolphins turned up dead on beaches. Blue-green algae took over Lake Okeechobee and sent more than a dozen people to the hospital, while manatees perished in the toxic sludge.

These algal blooms are a common occurrence in South Florida. Politicians, scientists and residents are trying to get a handle on this seasonal problem that’s not only killing aquatic life, but also stifling tourism. Controlling nutrient pollution from surrounding dairies and sugarcane farms is critical.

Australia’s Nutrient Pollution Travels from River to Reef

Meanwhile, in the southern hemisphere, nutrient pollution from nearly 40 river basins exacerbates climate change’s threat to the Great Barrier Reef. Nutrients in the coastal waters impair the reef’s resilience during bleaching events and trigger harmful algal blooms that feed the reef-eating crown-of-thorns starfish.

According to the government, the country needs to reduce nutrient pollution by 80 percent, primarily from farms. The government passed laws restricting land-use changes in the hopes of reducing runoff, but without involvement from agricultural stakeholders, buy-in around the greater nutrient-reduction effort has been limited.

Stepping-up Global Action to Address the Nutrient Challenge

On March 11-15, the highest-level decision-making body on the environment will convene in Nairobi for the fourth session of the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA4). Leaders and high-level decisionmakers representing the UN’s 192 member states will discuss intergovernmental cooperation around environmental goals and policies, including for water pollution. We expect a first-of-its-kind resolution on sustainable nitrogen management. Nations will face even more momentum to curb nutrient pollution, but they’ll need the resources to do so.

They can start by learning from what’s worked in the past. The Global Nutrient Management Toolbox, created by the Global Partnership on Nutrient Management (GPNM) in partnership with WRI, collects examples of practices and innovative solutions for controlling the various sources of nutrient pollution.

For example, under threat from development and rural land intensification, the New Zealand government set up a trust to protect the pristine Lake Taupo from increased nitrogen loads. Funded by taxpayers, the trust purchases land where nitrogen pollution is high and converts it to forests. The trust also provides financial incentives to farmers and other landowners employing nitrogen-reduction technologies, and conducts research on innovative pollution-control practices. After more than 10 years of the trust’s activities, Lake Taupo continues to experience low nutrient loads and high water quality.

And many countries around the world, such as the United States, the European Union and China, have reduced phosphorus pollution by banning phosphates in detergents. In other countries, such as the Philippines, local water quality experts are promoting such bans as a promising strategy.

The toolbox also includes:

  • Case studies and best practices;
  • A framework for creating nutrient management policies, with examples of regulatory and voluntary approaches; and
  • A tool for calculating nutrient loads in river basins around the world, which can be used to monitor progress toward SDGs.

If national governments are going to meet global goals to clean up lakes, rivers and coastlines, we need a mix of effective strategies that catalyze more action on the ground. We need to develop policies, create innovative programs and implement best practices for reducing excess nutrients from all sources—like capturing and treating wastewater, controlling agricultural runoff and employing smart sustainable development practices. Promising solutions are already in play around the world. The toolbox can help all countries get the resources they need to develop effective nutrient management strategies.


LEARN MORE: The Global Nutrient Management Toolbox was created by the Global Partnership on Nutrient Management, in partnership in WRI, and provides resources on how to sustainably manage nutrients from the policy level to the farm level. If you’re interested in learning more, join us March 7 at 9:00 EST for a webinar hosted by WRI and the UN Environment’s Global Programme of Action’s Global Partnership on Nutrient Management. Register here.

Stay Connected