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All the violence in the world, including wars, does not claim as many victims as polluted water, according to the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP). Every year, two million tons of sewage and industrial and agricultural waste make their way into global waterways and the resulting contamination kills at least 1.8 million children younger than five, the UNEP says in its "Sick Water" report.
More grim statistics underscore the gravity of the problem: in addition to a child dying every 20 seconds, more than 50% of hospital beds around the world are occupied by people whose illnesses are the result of contaminated water consumption.
This massive scale of pollution is taking a heavy toll on marine ecosystems and the wider environment. In developing countries, about 90% of wastewater is dumped directly into oceans, rivers and lakes without being treated. This dumping is partly responsible for the rapid increase in de-oxygenated dead zones in seas and oceans. According to the report, these discharges have affected an estimated 245,000 km2 of marine ecosystems, which is in turn impacting fisheries, livelihoods and the food chain.
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Water pollution also affects the climate, the UNEP points out. Methane and nitrous oxide emissions attributable to wastewater could increase by a respective 50% and 25% between 1990 and 2020.
Given the steadily growing number of urban dwellers, it is critical for cities around the world to develop efficient and sustainable strategies for wastewater treatment, the report goes on to note. This should be regarded as a matter of urgency considering that coastal cities will be the home of about 1.6 billion people by 2015. This means that more than 20% of the global population will be living in such cities within a year.