30 September 2020

Environmental Pollution and Degradation

With the recent water crisis that has hit Chennai- one of the mega cities of India, the advent of ecological degradation that has been plaguing the world has become crystal clear.

Humans have used, misused and exploited natural resources, leaving behind nothing but toxic wastes which have been gradually deteriorating the health of the environment.

While the world keeps itself busy with the new heights that humankind has achieved over the decades since industrial revolution, the impact upon environment that it has caused is still largely ignored.

This negative impact upon the environment comes in two forms- environmental pollution and environmental degradation.

Environmental pollution is generation and accumulation of toxic and undesirable substances in the spheres of earth. This leads to contamination of various primary and secondary natural resources making them unavailable for use to all the life forms on the planet.

While environmental degradation refers to the constant depletion and destruction of natural resources due to overuse and exploitation by humans due to which other species are unable to utilise these resources.

Although ignored, these problems have not gone unnoticed by everyone. Responsible citizens and human beings have taken various initiatives to take corrective measures against this misuse and have been successful to an extent.

But it is not enough, a combined effort by each and every human is required to ensure that we can divert our planet from imminent danger that environmental pollution and degradation poses and make it a better place to live and flourish in, and for that, we have to start by getting informed about it and spreading the awareness.

Environmental Pollution and it Types

Environmental pollution takes place when artificial substances are introduced into the environment, which over extended period of exposure, accumulates in the environment and cause adverse effects. Such harmful substances and products are identified as pollutants.

As reported by The Guardian in 2017, pollution had already been responsible for about 9 million deaths across the world. Other than loss of human lives, it has also severely affected other plant and animal species. On the basis of the type and target of the pollutants, pollution is classified in the following types-

Air Pollution

This type of pollution has existed since pre-historic times, ever since man discovered fire. Indoor air pollution has been inferred after observing the large deposition of soot in the ceilings of caves.

Further down the timeline, smelting and metal production contributed to outdoor air pollution. In the modern era, the industrial revolution caused a surge in air pollution which has continued till today.

Air contaminants and pollutants include greenhouse gases like CO2, Carbon Monoxide and sulphur oxides. Greenhouse gases are the leading cause of air pollution according to a report by National Geographic published in 2016. Other than them, volatile free radicals, particulate matter (dust), ammonia and chlorofluorocarbons also play a vital role in spreading air pollution.

Artificial contaminants add to the natural pollutants from volcanic eruption, sandstorms and other calamities and cause various disorders and illnesses like respiratory infections, heart disease, COPD, stroke and lung cancer.

Water Pollution

When anthropogenic contaminants and natural phenomena (like algal blooms, eutrophication, etc.) impair the natural bodies of water, the process is called water pollution. It has been the reason of death of 1.8 million people till 2015. Water pollution can be further divided into surface water, marine and groundwater pollution.

Plastic debris, oil and petroleum, human waste, artificial geysers, industrial waste and dumping toxic substances in water bodies contribute to this uneventful phenomenon. The major life forms that are affected are the aquatic plants and animals. Additionally, it has also caused scarcity of drinking water.

Soil Pollution

Contamination of soil through xenobiotic agents (man-made compounds) leads to soil pollution. Most common of these chemicals include petroleum, heavy metals, lead, synthetic pesticides and fertilisers, and industrial wastes. Toxic material also sometimes seeps through the soil and contaminate groundwater, which leads to water pollution too.

Noise Pollution

The last of the four conventional types of pollution (air, water, soil, noise), noise pollution is defined as propagation of noise which has harmful impact on human and animal lives. Most common noise pollutants are vehicles, machines, construction sites, loud music, etc.

This leads to loss of hearing, hypertension and increased risk of CVDs in humans and anxiety and disorientation in animals. The WHO has prescribed the highest limits of sound to be at 50 dB in residential areas, but it already exceeds the limit to 97 dBs, especially in low-income and racial minority regions.

Urban Pollution

Urbanisation is credited to the development of the human race. But urban locations are also the most polluted regions in the world. Various pollutants affect the urban landscape-

Plastic had been seen as a common pollutant and was classified under the conventional types of pollution. It has been estimated that almost 1.1 to 8.8 million metric tons of plastic waste entered the oceans every year in the new millennium till 2015, and the numbers might run higher ever since.

This causes physiological changes in marine life which leads to their destruction. Combined with the waste generated due to man-made and anthropogenic activities, they have become the face of urban pollution. Increasing population and poor waste management policies have led to plastic and litter pollution.

Light and visual pollution are also related to urban pollution as they are the direct outcome of urbanisation. Light pollution deals with the presence of artificial light in the night environment which leads to over-illumination and disrupting ecosystems and spoiling aesthetic environment.

Highly illuminated cities make the night sky bright, which often causes imbalance in the natural condition. Similarly, visual pollution involves under-developed urban landscapes. Visual pollution is purely aesthetic in nature which causes mental and social issues in individuals.

Radioactive and Thermal Pollution

Nuclear energy is one of the most efficient non-conventional sources of energy. Various nuclear power plants have been set up around the world but the technology and ideas for effective management of power plant wastes has not developed at the same rate.

Radioactive waste disposal is a priority waste management issue as it directly affects humans and the flora and fauna of the regions. Inefficient disposal techniques cause radioactive pollution. At the same time, release of coolant water into natural water bodies lead to change in ambient temperature of the lakes, ponds and rivers. This causes physiological and habitat-related changes in marine life.

Environmental Degradation

Due to the combination of various socio-economic and technological factors, the environment is experiencing a constant deterioration and depletion of its natural resources. Human interference has also caused the destruction of habitat and extinction of other species. Added to the environmental pollution, all these activities are a subset of environmental degradation which has dropped the planet into an environmental crisis.

Human activities tend only to the human interest which has led to loss of biodiversity. WJ Ripple et al. published a paper in BioScience according to which, humans have led the world into the 6th mass extinction event after 540 million years.

Approximately one million plant and animal species are facing extinction due to anthropogenic causes. This can be attributed to loss of habitat, overuse of natural resources by humans and detrimental activities like recreational hunting, poaching and illegal smuggling of animal products.

The flora and fauna are not the only losers here, humans themselves are prone to environmental calamities that are set to occur in near future due to climate change. The mean global temperature has been on the rise along with dangerous accumulation of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases which has led to the phenomenon of global warming.

Evaporation of groundwater, melting of glaciers and rise in sea level are already causing water crises around the world. Precipitation has also been affected by the change in climate model of the world. Tropics and higher latitudes will face an increase while subtropics will face a visible decrease in precipitation.

This will lead to drying up of reservoirs which will change the landscape of rivers, lakes and other natural water bodies. The worst hit sector due to this change will be the agriculture sector as it depends largely on precipitation for irrigation.

Overpopulation also leads to increased use and in extreme cases- exploitation of resources. Hence it has played a crucial role in aggravating the situation. The more heads we spawn, the more food we require to feed them, more water to quench their thirsts and more land to provide them residence.

Rapid urbanisation and industrial agriculture has led to loss of forest lands by deforestation. Furthermore, increased consumption of resources has led to a surge in the average carbon footprint of humans that has caused the global temperatures to spike. Groundwater is slowly depleting and is plunging the world into a water crisis.

Almost 79% of the world population lives in urban area of developing countries. Most of these areas are unable to provide clean drinking water and hygienic and sanitary living conditions which forces the people to live unhealthy lifestyles and be exposed to the risk of contracting diseases.

Measures to Counter Environmental Degradation & Pollution

Thankfully, all hopes are not lost. Various nations and governments have recognised that exploitation and brazen use of natural resources has been causing serious damage to the environment and have come together to fight pollution and degradation on national and international levels.

Both the developed and the developing countries are equally responsible for the trouble they have created in the global ecosystem hence corrective measures and need to regulate and monitor human activities has been identified and implemented.

The impact of human activity on the environment is calculated by using a mathematical formula- I=P×A×T, where I stands for the human impact on the environment, P denotes population, A signifies affluence and T represents technology. Hence, the three key factors that affect the environmental health are human population, economic growth and application of resource depleting and/or polluting technologies.

Environmental scientists have set the following goals which will be beneficial for the people and the natural systems-

  • Controlling pollution by eliminating pollutants and toxicant from the environment
  • Protecting and preserving the biodiversity and ecological habitats
  • Sustainable use and development of natural resources
  • Putting a check on anthropogenic global warming
  • Finding renewable sources of energy and limiting use of fossil fuels as source of energy
  • Establishing higher number of nature reserves, sanctuaries and protected regions to preserve ecosystem
  • Find a more efficient sustainable waste management model to reduce littering.
  • Stabilising and gradually decelerating human population growth.

Based upon these goals, world leaders have organised themselves to ascertain that they initiate and maintain pro-environmental policies to undo the mishaps of our ignorance. Although the first concerns regarding the health of the environment were brought up as early as the 7th century AD, the need for international cooperation was realised worldwide only in the 19th century.

After the Second World War, in 1948, International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) was founded by the world leaders, headquartered in Gland, Switzerland. In 1969, the USA passed its National Environment Policy Act which mandated the first requirements on environmental impact assessment. Throughout the 1950’s and 1960’s, environmentalism saw a massive spread as people begun to realise the gravity of environmental degradation.

The first World Earth Day was held in April 22, 1970. Just two years later, The Conference on the Human Environment, more famously referred to as the Stockholm Conference resulted in the formation of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

The same year saw a spurt in marine conservation activities via Oslo Convention, Marine Mammal Protection Act, Coastal Zone Management Act, etc. But even with the rise in environmental revolution, industrial activities had not yet adopted eco-friendly manufacturing models.

This was brought into attention through the reports on Ozone layer depletion. In 1986, Montreal Protocol was opened for signatures which would bind nations to fight ozone depletion. It came into force on New Year’s Day, 1989 and has undergone five revisions ever since.

In 1988, Inter-governmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) was set up to assess the risk of human-induced climate change. It furnished its first report in 1990 which acted as the basis of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). It was opened for signatures in 1992 during a historical event in the form of the Rio-de-Janeiro Earth Summit.

The UNFCCC was amended in the form of Kyoto Protocol in 1997. The nations which ratified to this protocol were committed to reduce their CO2 and other greenhouse gases emission.

The 21st century ushered the new age of environmentalism. The Kyoto Protocol was rejected by the USA in 2001 but it came into force in 2005 after Russia became a signatory. The idea behind UNFCCC was further propagated in the form of the Paris Agreement which took effect from November 2016. Its aims included controlling global temperatures, divestment from fossil fuels and lower greenhouse gas emissions.

India has been an active participant of the environmental movement at both national and international levels. We have incorporated environment protection in article 48 of the Directive Principles of State Policy and Article 51-A makes environment protection a duty of Indian citizens.

Early environment specific laws include the Indian Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 and the Environment Protection Act, 1986. India is also a part of the Convention on Biological Diversity as well as is a responsible signatory of the Paris Agreement, 2016. Being a developing nation as well as the 2nd most populated country, environmental degradation and pollution is rampant.

14 out of 15 most polluted cities are in India, according to a WHO global air pollution database. As of 2019, India is on the brink of a national water crisis with one of its major metropolitan city- Chennai- already plunging into a water crisis like many of the smaller towns and villages.

Corrective measures are therefore required to ease this situation. Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan has been a very important initiative by the Government of India. Furthermore, regulations by the Central Pollution Control Board should be enforced rigorously to check on the growing rate of pollution.

Remediation should be implemented in the form of electrostatic precipitator, gas absorbers. Scrubbers and improvised sewage treatment and waste disposal. E-vehicles and alternative fuel market should be given a boost. Furthermore, under the Paris Accord, India has promised to increase the green cover in its territory.

We should live up on our promise and should take up massive tree plantation and afforestation drive using modern ecological technologies like seed bombs, drone-assisted tree plantings, etc. Rainwater harvesting is another ideal method of water conservation and recharging the ever depleting groundwater resources.

Conclusion

Humans have always strived to live a better life. That is the sole reason why we have reached this stage of advancement. But in the process, we had ignored the side effects of our socio-economic growth that were adversely affecting the planet on which we live.

Our blatant exploitation of natural resources to fulfil our goals and desires caused widespread loss to the ecosystem and other species of life. Although we realised it late, there is still hope to revert our mistakes if we start acting now.

Adopting Eco-friendly habits and schemes and aiming for a sustainable development is the only way we can ensure good health of this planet as well as the future of the human race.

A healthy environment will ensure a healthy economy. As Wangari Maathai, says- “The environment and the economy are really both two sides of the same coin. If we cannot sustain the environment, we cannot sustain ourselves.”

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