What acid rain teaches us about water

Image: Martin Brechtl

Whatever happened to acid rain?

I first heard about acid rain aged seven, and remember walking home that night terrified if it rained, acid would fall from the clouds and burn off my skin. I am not alone. Many people growing up in the 1970s and '80s will be familiar with the term acid rain and its impact on the environment.

Thanks to a concerted global effort, by the 1990s acid rain was seemingly transformed from a pollution horror show to an environmental success story. So how was the issue of acid rain tackled, and what can we learn about the way it was dealt with when it comes to the water crises?

What is acid rain?

Acid rain is a type of air pollution that happens when certain gases are released into the atmosphere and react with water, oxygen, and other chemicals to form acids. These acids then fall to the ground in the form of rain, snow, fog, or sleet. The main gases that cause acid rain are sulphur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxide (NOx). These gases are released into the atmosphere when fossil fuels, such as coal and oil, are burned.

Acid rain causes numerous negative environmental effects. It damages trees and other plants, making them more vulnerable to pests and diseases. Water bodies including lakes, streams, and other bodies of water can be contaminated, making them unsafe for fish and other aquatic life. In addition to harming human health, acid rain can also cause damage to buildings and other structures.

Acid rain is a serious environmental issue that can have a number of harmful effects on the environment and human health. However, it is also the perfect example of how an environmental problem can be tackled globally through a combination of sound science, public support and action, and regulations and initiatives.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, acid rain was a major environmental problem. However, thanks to a number of government regulations and initiatives in North America and Europe, emissions of sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide have been significantly reduced. As a result, the problem of acid rain has largely been solved in these regions - which is great news for people and ecosystems.

It was not an easy journey. Tackling acid rain required the use of cutting-edge science, media attention, and the discovery of common ground in order to forge alliances.

How does this relate to the water crisis?

The water crisis is a global problem caused by the increasing demand for water and the decreasing availability of fresh water. The crisis is exacerbated by climate change, which is causing more extreme weather events, such as droughts and floods.

The water crisis has a devastating impact on people and the environment. Right now millions of people around the world do not have access to safe drinking water, and many more are at risk of waterborne diseases. The crisis is also leading to the destruction of ecosystems and the loss of biodiversity.

Just like the issue of acid rain, the water crisis is a global problem requiring a global solution. We all have a role to play in protecting our water resources and ensuring that everyone has access to safe, clean water.

We can learn a lot from how acid rain was handled about how to deal with the water crisis, including:

  • Science is vital. Scientists were the first to recognise the issue of acid rain. Their research helped raise awareness of the problem and build a case for action
  • Getting people involved. Tackling acid rain relied on the public caring about the problem. Because people were worried about the issue, they were willing to take action by making changes in their own lives
  • Communication is key. It took a combined effort from journalists, scientists, and other concerned individuals across the world to raise awareness of the issue before companies and governments were forced to tackle this issue
  • Government intervention is required. In the fight against acid rain, Government action was critical. Across the world, they enacted laws that established emission regulations and allocated funds for study and cleanup initiatives
  • Collaboration across borders is crucial. As the saying goes, "[Acid] rain does not fall on one house alone." An international effort was required to address the transboundary issue of acid rain

It is worth noting that while the issue has been largely resolved, acid rain is still a problem in some parts of the world, particularly in developing countries where emissions of sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide are still high. That is why it is important to continue to work to reduce emissions of these gases to protect the environment and human health.

The water crisis is a complex problem that will require a concerted effort from scientists, citizens, and governments. But if we can learn anything from acid rain, by working together, there are ways to solve this problem and protect our vital water resources for future generations.