At a glance: Poverty

‘Poverty’, Indira Gandhi told the seminal 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, ‘is the worst form of pollution’.

Her words came as a shock at the time, particularly to industrialized countries mainly concentrating on the emissions that were a by-product of affluence. But their truth has become ever more evident as the years have gone by.

All over the world, the poor suffer most from environmental damage. They account for an overwhelming proportion of the toll of disease and death from pollution, and are by far the greatest victims of the degradation of the natural world. They live nearest to polluting factories and toxic waste sites; they are the most affected by desertification and deforestation; and they are expected to suffer disproportionately from the effects of global warming.

And yet the poor contribute relatively little to pollution and climate change: by far the greatest contribution comes from the rich. And though the poor often act as the direct agents of the overuse of soils or the felling of forests, they are usually forced to do so by their poverty and their unequal access to land. This sets up a downward spiral, as the poor are impelled to destroy the natural resources on which they depend, thus deepening their poverty. Rising affluence and growing poverty thus both wreak great damage on the planet; in both cases the poor are the main victims. A more equitable world would be a more environmentally sustainable one, and vice versa. Thus, to complete Mrs. Gandhi’s thought, eliminating poverty would be one of the best forms of environmental protection.

Geoffrey Lean

More than four out of every five of the 3 million people who die as a result of air pollution each year are among the poorest people on Earth. And, paradoxically, the great majority of them live not in polluted towns and cities, but in the countryside. They are victims of one of the deadliest, but least publicised, of all environmental hazards – indoor air pollution by smoke from burning dung, wood and crop wastes. The smoke fills houses with hundreds of toxic chemicals, exposing the young and the elderly, as well as the fit, to the danger. Every year some 2 million people – 1.8 million of them in rural areas – die as a result.

Dirty water is the world’s deadliest pollutant. According to the World Bank, every year some 3 million people – the majority of them children – die as a result of diarrhoeal diseases. Again, much the greatest toll is among the poor in developing countries. Great progress has been made since the early 1980s; some 2 billion people in developing countries have got safe drinking water for the first time; some 400 million have gained basic sanitation. Yet often the poorest people have not benefited. As a result more than a billion still lack safe or sufficient supplies of water, and more than 2 billion have no sanitation.

Pesticides often present a major hazard for poor farmers and farmworkers, who lack protective clothing and training in how to use the chemicals, and who often cannot read the instructions. Some 25 million are thought to be poisoned by pesticides each year; hundreds of thousands die.

Lead in petrol – banned in most developed nations, and overwhelmingly now used in developing ones – threatens children’s brains. Studies in some developing country cities have found that most children under two have concentrations of the toxic metal high enough to damage their mental ability. The poorest – often already suffering damage from malnutrition and frequently living by the sides of busy roads – are particularly vulnerable.

In developed and developing countries alike, poor people are usually most at risk from polluting industries and roads, waste sites, and other hazards since they live nearest to them. In Los Angeles over 71 per cent of African Americans live in highly polluted areas, compared to just 24 per cent of whites, while in big cities in the United States black children are three times as likely as white ones to have hazardous levels of lead in their blood. In Britain, 86 per cent of those disabled by asthma are from the lowest social classes. And in India the toll of the Bhopal disaster was greatly magnified because a shanty town began just 5 metres from the factory’s boundary.

Desertification threatens the livelihoods of a billion of the poorest people on Earth. Almost half of the world’s poorest people already live on marginal lands and they are being pushed onto ever more fragile land as more and more good soil is used for cash crops, setting up a vicious circle of desertification and poverty.

Global warming is also expected to hit the poorest hardest, increasing inequalities. Many models suggest that areas with little rain already – where many of the poorest live – will in future get even less. Harvests are expected to be particularly badly hit, and water shortages will increase in many developing countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Poor people living on land vulnerable to flooding are likely to be the first to suffer from sea-level rise; a 1 metre rise is projected to inundate 17 per cent of Bangladesh.

Poor people depend on the world’s natural biodiversity for food, fuel and medicine; some 3 billion people, half the population of the world, rely primarily on traditional medicine to cure their ills. So the loss of biodiversity – as forests are felled, wetlands drained and other habitats destroyed – hits them particularly hard.

PHOTOGRAPHS: UNEP/Topham, Lorraine Adams/UNEP/Topham, UNEP/Topham, L. Abou-Zeid/UNEP/Topham, Jovanovic Zovan/UNEP/Still Pictures, Zhui Yi/UNEP/Still Pictures, UNEP/Topham, Betty Press/UNEP/Topham

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:
Kristalina Georgieva: Disproportionate effects (Beyond 2000) 2000
Mark Malloch Brown: Empowering the poor (The environment millennium) 2000