The nature and significance of nonpoint sources of surface and groundwater pollution are examined in this review. Examples are given from across the globe illustrating extensive economic, environmental, and human health damage from these diffuse sources. Agricultural sources, both subsistence farming and irrigated cropland, were found to cause the most widespread water quality problems worldwide. In the least developed nations, areawide releases of human sewage – especially near rural groundwater wells and in burgeoning urban areas – cause the most serious damage with an estimated one billion people suffering from waterborne diseases at any one time. In Europe, the former Soviet Union, and North America, leaking hazardous waste sites, contaminated sediments, and atmospheric deposition of acidifying and toxic substances pose complex challenges in addition to the agricultural pollution sources; and transboundary pollution abatement to restore large waterbodies is becoming a priority for foreign aid assistance. Institutional and cultural barriers to pollution abatement can be overcome by including interventions as integral parts of sustainable economic development initiatives. Through a comprehensive, ecosystem-based approach to water resources management, progress in controlling nonpoint source pollution can be made.

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