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World Bank worries about strong presence of nitrates in drinking water

This polyatomic compound, which is responsible for water pollution, mainly affects infants because of the immaturity of their digestive system. In Morocco, the situation has been known for a long time.

This is a reality imperceptible to the naked eye, elusive for anyone who is not expert in the field, but whose stakes are huge. The World Bank devotes its latest report, published Tuesday, August 20, to the quality of water. It emphasizes the importance of “urgent attention to hidden dangers beneath the surface of the water”, where so far the concerns have been about the amount of water – too much in case of floods and too much little in case of drought.

Entitled “Unknown quality: the invisible water crisis”, the report states that developing countries do not have a monopoly on water quality issues, calling attention to their “universal” nature. The opportunity to cite several factors at the root of this crisis, such as the intensification of agriculture, changes in land use, more variable rainfall patterns due to climate change or the increasing industrialization due to development countries. “This translates into an increase in the proliferation of algae in the water, which is deadly for humans and ecosystems.”

Nitrate, one of the main pollutants of water

The World Bank is particularly worried about the increasing pollution of water by nitrates. “Nitrate (NO3-) is an ion produced during the nitrogen cycle, particularly soluble in water and responsible for water pollution”. The object of many industrial uses, nitrate is not in itself toxic. “It’s the transformation of nitrates into nitrites that can potentially have a negative impact on health,” says the Water Information Center on its website. The presence of these nitrites in the blood can form “methemoglobins”, a form of hemoglobin that prevents the transport of oxygen. “It’s been known for a long time that ingestion of nitrates and nitrites can kill infants,” says the World Bank, as their digestive systems do not have the maturity to transform methemoglobin into hemoglobin.

According to the report, Morocco is one of the countries where “nitrates in drinking water often exceed conventional safety thresholds, not only because of high concentrations in surface water, but also because of the contamination of water on groundwater,” alongside India, Japan, Lebanon, Niger, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines, Senegal, Turkey and Gaza.

A statement that does not surprise Abderrahim Ksiri, president of the Association of teachers of life sciences and earth (AESVT). “This alarming situation has been known for a long time,” he says. “In the Casablanca-Settat region alone, 80% of the water tables, which can be up to 3,000 km², are very polluted. There are two reasons for this: pollution due to industrial discharges and that caused by nitrates contained in fertilizers,” he adds.

The President of the AESVT castigates the quantities of fertilizer used on agricultural surfaces – agriculture is extremely water-hungry. “This alarming situation has steadily increased and polluted the water,” says Ksiri.

Evidence that these observations are not new: in 2014, the Economic, Social and Environmental Council (CESE) indicated in a report on water management that “the existence of overexploitation of RE (water resources) in specific sub-sectors such as irrigated agriculture, combined with the sometimes unreasonable use of fertilizers and pesticides, alter the quality of the aquifers and threaten their sustainability. This situation has serious consequences for public health, biodiversity and the environment, and particularly for the country’s water resources, both in quantity and quality”.

In particular, “the excessive delay of liquid sanitation (especially in rural areas) and solid; the malfunction of several treatment plants; the virtual absence of control of polluting discharges; uncontrolled use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides in agriculture; the absence of protective perimeters (near and far) around drinking water catchments”.

When water decreases, the nitrate concentration increases

The problem of water quality arises especially in the rural world, where part of the population uses rainwater and springs, “the same one that is polluted”, for lack of access to water and drinking water. The association manager also raises two other aspects: food pollution and the scarcity of water. “The rate of use of pesticides and fertilizers is too high, which directly impacts food and water security. It must also be said that water is becoming scarce in Morocco, making it difficult to access quality water. As the amount of water decreases, so does the concentration of nitrate,” he warns. In the 2017 edition of its annual report, the CESE stated that “Morocco has already experienced a significant drop in per capita water potential, from around 2 560 m3/inhabitant in the 1960s to around 700 m3/hab currently.

Abderrahim Ksiri believes that little progress has been made in Morocco for the quality and sanitation of water, the reduction of pesticides and fertilizers and the fight against industrial pollution. It is hard not to agree with it, given the 16 years of inactivity of the High Council for Water and Climate and the still-pending National Water Plan, which should however be ready in a year.

Sign that the urgent problem: the disturbances of drinking water supply could constitute a factor of social instability in several Moroccan regions (Zagora, Ouazzane-Chefchaouen, Azilal, Sefrou), alerted the CESE in 2017, recalling that inhabitants have several once beaten the pavement to claim their right of access to drinking water and complain about a bad distribution of water.

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