Klaus Toepfer
United Nations Under-Secretary
General and Executive Director, UNEP

Let me introduce you to George, gardener, father of three and Kenyan citizen.

Each day he brings home $2.50, equivalent to $60 a month for a six-day week. The family’s biggest expense is fuel. Up to 20 per cent or nearly $12 goes on charcoal and kerosene for cooking and lighting their meagre, one-bedroom house in a Nairobi slum.

The smoke from the cooking fires leaves him, his wife Grace and the three little ones with constant coughs and wheezes. But switching to gas or a cleaner fuel is unimaginable on George’s scant wages.

Dining on air
Around $13 a month is spent on rent. The rest is swallowed up by food and the occasional purchase of clothes. At lunchtime George dines on an ‘airburger’, as locals term it. Essentially he lies down for an hour in the nearest hedge and contemplates his life. The evening’s fare, the one real meal of the day, consists of maize flour, fried chopped kale leaves known as sukuma wiki, and the occasional morsel of meat.

The combination of poor diet, poor indoor air and contaminated drinking water means that George and Grace live in constant fear of disease. Days off work are frequent. Hospital bills are out of the question so if the pair or their children fall ill the only medicine available is prayer. George and Grace dream that one day they may have enough money to send their children to school so that, with education, they might be able to escape the vicious cycle of the poverty trap.

But like caring for the environment, this remains a dream for someone living on less than $3 a day. George knows that the charcoal he burns has come from the unsustainable felling of forests. He can see the scarred landscape of the once heavily wooded Ngong Hills every day when he walks to work. George also knows that those forests are vital for keeping local rivers clean and flowing and for preserving wildlife. However, for the desperately poor, saving yourself comes before saving the planet.

There are billions of Georges and Graces across the developing world. You might deem them the lucky ones. It is estimated that half the world’s population lives on less than $2 a day with somewhere around a quarter consigned to absolute poverty on less than a dollar a day.

Each year 16 million people die of hunger and starvation. An estimated 800 million are malnourished.

About a billion people lack any health care and a similar number lack adequate shelter. More than a billion are without safe or sufficient quantities of drinking water and nearly a billion are illiterate. More than 2 billion do not have adequate sanitation.

UNEP is working hard to try to break the deadly links between health, poverty and environmental damage. It has, for example, spearheaded the drive against chemicals hazardous to health, leading to the Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants earlier this year. In cooperation with the World Meteorological Organization, it has established the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, through which the world is becoming increasingly aware of the links between global warming, poverty and health.

But much more needs to be done. It will require dynamic partnerships between ourselves, other United Nations agencies and organizations, industry, governments, financial institutions and charities.

These issues will be at the heart of the World Summit on Sustainable Development taking place in Johannesburg next year. We must make a success of this or we will all be the poorer. We owe it to George and Grace and their family. We owe it to us all.

Common endeavour
This edition of Our Planet is dedicated to the poor all over the world and to our hope at UNEP that addressing the links between poverty, ill health and the environment can become a common global endeavour. For unless we tackle these links we will never get to many of the root causes of environmental degradation that threaten everyone’s quality of life, be they rich or poor. As my colleague H. N. B. Gopalan, UNEP’s Task Manager on Environment and Health, so rightly observes: ‘You will never save and conserve important ecosystems, habitats and ultimately a healthy planet if on their edges you have poor, desperate, hopeless and unhealthy people.’


This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Answering poor health | Tackling water poverty | Everything connects | Up the gross natural product | Stopping AIDS | Whose city is it anyway? | Nutrition | At a glance: Poverty | Competition | World Bank Special: ‘Double burden’ | It’s not just, pollution | Smoke and fires | Breaking the cycle of poison | Pharmacies for life | Viewpoint: Change – or decay | The environment: why we must not give up | World Atlas of Coral Reefs | GTOS: An eyeglass on our planet

Complementary articles in other issues:
Didier J. Cherpital: Breaking the cycle (Disasters) 2001
Alcira Kreimer and Margaret Arnold: The poor suffer most (Disasters) 2001
Madeleine K. Albright: Changing course (The environment millennium) 2000
Mark Malloch Brown: Empowering the poor (The environment millennium) 2000
Kristalina Georgieva: Disproportionate effects (Beyond 2000) 2000