Short Essay On Environmental Degradation And Poverty

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  • by Anup Shah
  • This Page Last Updated Saturday, February 12, 2005
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An edited version of this article appeared in the Summer 2003 edition of Jain Spirit magazine.

On this page:

  1. Introduction—Linking the Environment and Poverty
  2. The Impact of Poverty on the Environment
  3. The Impact of Richer Nations on the Environment
  4. Diverting Resources to Non-Productive Uses
  5. Environment and Poverty are Related Issues

Introduction—Linking the Environment and Poverty

Many readers are probably familiar with the tale of four blind men being asked to identify the object in front of them. Each blind man just investigated a part so no one identified the whole as an elephant. Similarly, both environmental degradation and poverty alleviation are urgent global issues that have a lot in common, but are often treated separately. This article explores some of these linkages.

Both environmental degradation and poverty alleviation are urgent global issues that have a lot in common, but are often treated separately. Consider the following:

  • Human activities are resulting in mass species extinction rates higher than ever before, currently approaching 1000 times the normal rate;
  • Human-induced climate change is threatening an even bleaker future;
  • At the same time, the inequality of human societies is extreme:
    • The United Nations 1998 Human Development Report reveals that,
    • To highlight this inequality further, consider that approximately 1 billion people suffer from hunger and some 2 to 3.5 billion people have a deficiency of vitamins and minerals
    • Yet, some 1.2 billion suffer from obesity
    • One billion people live on less than a dollar a day, the official measure of poverty
    • However, half the world — nearly three billion people — lives on less than two dollars a day.
    • Yet, just a few hundred millionaires now own as much wealth as the world’s poorest 2.5 billion people.
  • Sources: Poverty facts and statistics; Loss of Biodiversity; Climate change and global warming.

Issues about environment, economics and politics are inter-related through the way humans interact with their surroundings and with each other.

Biological diversity allows a variety of species to all work together to help maintain the environment without costly human intervention. We benefit because the environment sustains us with the variety of resources produced.

However, there is often a mainstream belief that for poor countries to develop, environmental concerns have to be sacrificed, or is a luxury to address once poverty is alleviated.

Therefore, the approaches to such issues require rethinking. The overloaded phrase must recognize the interconnectedness between human beings and the environment if true environmental and social justice is to be obtained.

As Delhi-based environment organization, the Centre for Science and Environment, points out, if the poor world were to develop and consume in the same manner as the West to achieve the same living standards,

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The Impact of Poverty on the Environment

Poverty and third world debt has been shown to result in resource stripping just to survive or pay off debts.

For example, Nepal and Bangladesh have suffered from various environmental problems such as increasingly devastating floods, often believed to be resulting from large-scale deforestation.

Forests around the world face increased pressures from timber companies, agricultural businesses, and local populations that use forest resources.

Some environmentalists, from rich nations especially, also raise concerns about increasing populations placing excessive burdens on the world’s resources as the current major source of environmental problems.

This makes for a worrying situation for third world development and poverty alleviation. However, an environment-only approach risks While humans are largely responsible for many problems of the planet today, not all humans have the same impact on the environment. It is important to consider, for example, that the consumption of just the worlds wealthiest fifth of humanity is so much more than the rest of the world, as highlighted at the beginning.

Thus, putting emphasis on population growth in this way is perhaps over-simplistic. However, this does not mean we can be complacent about future population burdens. Sustainability is critical for the world’s majority to develop without following the environmentally damaging processes of the world’s currently industrialized nations.

Also adding to the complexity is that resource usage is not necessarily fixed. That is, while there may be a finite amount of say oil in the ground, we may have not discovered it all, and further, overtime the use of those resources may increase in efficiency (or inefficiency). This means a planet could sustain a high population (probably within some limits) but it is a combination of things like how we use resources, for what purpose, how many, how the use of those resources change over time, etc, that defines whether they are used inefficiently or not and whether we will run out of them or not.

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The Impact of Richer Nations on the Environment

The relationship between the rich and poor, and the impacts on the environment go deep. Economics is meant to be about efficient allocation of resources to meet everyone’s needs. However, international power politics and ideologies have continued to influence policies in such a way that decision-making remains concentrated in the hands of a few narrow interests. The result is that the world’s resources are allocated to meet a few people’s wants, not everyone’s needs.

Indian activist and scientist, Vandana Shiva, shows in her work that many people have been forced into poverty due to politics and economics such as concentrated land rights, pressure from industry to exploit the environment in ways that destroy diversity and affect local populations, etc. Shiva also highlights that the poor often have a lot of knowledge about their environment and are often sustainers and efficient users of it, as they recognize their link to it for their survival.

Excessive third world debt burden has meant that it has been harder to prioritize on sustainable development. Unfair debt, imposed on the third world for decades by the global institutions, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank through their harsh Structural Adjustment programmes (SAPs) have opened up of economies rapidly, in socially, politically, environmentally and economically destructive ways, while requiring a prioritization on debt repayment and cut backs on health, education and other critical services. They have encouraged concentration on producing just a few cash crops and other commodities primarily for export, using very environmentally damaging , which reduces biodiversity, requiring costly inputs such as environmentally damaging pesticides and fertilizers to make up for the loss of free services a diverse farm ecosystem would provide, and as Vandana Shiva charges,

Mainstream economists and politicians have long been criticized for concentrating on economic growth in ways that ignores humanity and the environmental costs. Perhaps one of the harshest ironies is how food and farm products flow from areas of hunger and need, to areas where money and demand is concentrated. Farm workers, and women especially, are amongst the worlds most hungry.

It is not just a problem in agriculture but other industries too. In 1991, then Chief Economist for the World Bank, Larry Summers, (and later U.S. Treasury Secretary, under the Clinton Administration), had been a strong backer of the disastrous SAPs. He wrote a leaked internal memo in 1992, revealing the extent to which international policies have an impact on nations around the world when it comes to environmental and other considerations:

For years, rich countries have been migrating some polluting industries to poor countries, but still producing primarily for rich countries. This has been possible insofar as it is cheaper than to pay for costly environmentally clean technologies that people demand.

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Diverting Resources to Non-Productive Uses

It is perhaps natural to assume that we are growing food to feed people, but are struggling to keep up. Reasons are frequently attributed to the effects that rapid population growth places of poor countries as the ultimate cause. However, we make more than enough food to keep up with population growth, although environmentally damaging industrial agriculture threatens future sustainability.

Yet how is it that there is so much hunger, and that farm workers are usually the hungriest people in the world?

An indication of the answer lies in what is less discussed in the mainstream: the purpose of agriculture in today’s world. Like many other markets, food is available to those who can afford it, not necessarily those who need it. Most food is therefore produced to meet consumer demands, not the needs of the poor or hungry. When money talks, the poor have no voice.

This leads to a major diversion, and even wastage, of environmental resources from productive uses to non-productive uses. For poor countries that need to earn foreign exchange to pay off huge debts, cash crops offer the chance of money. For elite landowners, this is the only way they can make money, as the poor have little. As professor of anthropology, Richard Robbins, summarizes:

In addition to minor nutritional quality, or damaging consumer’s health, some major agricultural products also involve production practices that damage the health and safety of workers and the environment.

For example, rainforests are often cleared to make way for grazing animals to be slaughtered for unhealthy fast food meat consumption, while prime land and the surrounding environment is often degraded when producing cash crops for the wealthier parts of the world. The effects are numerous. Vandana Shiva also captures this issue:

Industries such as the fast food industry benefit from people consuming more fast food meats and sugar-based products. Excessive consumption of coffee, alcohol, tobacco, etc, place an extra burden on the poor and on environmental resources, both in production of these products as well as at the other end, where health departments are already strained.

Yet this all contributes to economic measures such as Gross National Product. Economists and politicians look at these to see how well their policies are faring. Selling more sugary products or fast foods to children and adults results in more sales! Many environmental costs are either not accounted for or only partly so. For example, if the full cost of water by the meat industry in the United States was accounted for, common hamburger meat would cost $35 a pound!

We end up in a situation where 1 billion suffer from hunger, while another billion suffer from obesity.

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Environment and Poverty are Related Issues

The above just scratches the surface, but highlights the interconnectedness of humanity, the environment and all other forms of life. We cannot take the environment for granted. Humanity has a responsibility not only to each other, but to the environment as well, as the environment has long sustained us and can only continue to do so if we do not destroy it.

Technological solutions, such as more environmentally friendly technologies, while extremely important, do not address underlying political, social and economic causes. Just as doctors highlight the need to prevent illnesses in the first place, and resort to cures when needed, so too do we need to understand these deeper issues in a more holistic manner. The interconnectedness needs more recognition if environmental degradation, poverty and other global problems can begin to be addressed.

Concentrating on one dimension without others is similar to those blind men looking at just a part of the elephant. A form of environmentalism that ignores humanity as an integral part of the solution, of economic dogma that forgets about our basic needs, and of forms of development that ignore environmental concerns all add up to numerous problems for the world’s people and fragile ecosystems. Some of these problems are so big we do not even see them even when we think our eyes are open.

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Where next?

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  • by Anup Shah
  • Created: Sunday, April 20, 2003
  • Last Updated: Saturday, February 12, 2005

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Environmental degradation is the deterioration of the environment through depletion of resources such as air, water and soil; the destruction of ecosystems; habitat destruction; the extinction of wildlife; and pollution. It is defined as any change or disturbance to the environment perceived to be deleterious or undesirable.[1] As indicated by the I=PAT equation, environmental impact (I) or degradation is caused by the combination of an already very large and increasing human population (P), continually increasing economic growth or per capita affluence (A), and the application of resource-depleting and polluting technology (T).[2][3]

Environmental degradation is one of the ten threats officially cautioned by the High-level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change of the United Nations. The United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction defines environmental degradation as "the reduction of the capacity of the environment to meet social and ecological objectives, and needs".[4] Environmental degradation is of many types. When natural habitats are destroyed or natural resources are depleted, the environment is degraded. Efforts to counteract this problem include environmental protection and environmental resources management.

Water degradation[edit]

One major component of environmental degradation is the depletion of the resource of fresh water on Earth. Approximately only 2.5% of all of the water on Earth is fresh water, with the rest being salt water. 69% of fresh water is frozen in ice caps located on Antarctica and Greenland, so only 30% of the 2.5% of fresh water is available for consumption.[5] Fresh water is an exceptionally important resource, since life on Earth is ultimately dependent on it. Water transports nutrients, minerals and chemicals within the biosphere to all forms of life, sustains both plants and animals, and moulds the surface of the Earth with transportation and deposition of materials.[6]

The current top three uses of fresh water account for 95% of its consumption; approximately 85% is used for irrigation of farmland, golf courses, and parks, 6% is used for domestic purposes such as indoor bathing uses and outdoor garden and lawn use, and 4% is used for industrial purposes such as processing, washing, and cooling in manufacturing centers.[7] It is estimated that one in three people over the entire globe are already facing water shortages, almost one-fifth of the world population live in areas of physical water scarcity, and almost one quarter of the world's population live in a developing country that lacks the necessary infrastructure to use water from available rivers and aquifers. Water scarcity is an increasing problem due to many foreseen issues in the future, including population growth, increased urbanization, higher standards of living, and climate change.[5]

Climate change and temperature[edit]

Climate change affects the Earth's water supply in a large number of ways. It is predicted that the mean global temperature will rise in the coming years due to a number of forces affecting the climate, the amount of atmospheric Carbon Dioxide (CO2) will rise, and both of these will influence water resources; evaporation depends strongly on temperature and moisture availability, which can ultimately affect the amount of water available to replenish groundwater supplies.

Transpiration from plants can be affected by a rise in atmospheric CO2, which can decrease their use of water, but can also raise their use of water from possible increases of leaf area. Temperature rise can reduce the snow season in the winter and increase the intensity of the melting snow leading to peak runoff of this, affecting soil moisture, flood and drought risks, and storage capacities depending on the area.[8]

Warmer winter temperatures cause a decrease in snowpack, which can result in diminished water resources during summer. This is especially important at mid-latitudes and in mountain regions that depend on glacial runoff to replenish their river systems and groundwater supplies, making these areas increasingly vulnerable to water shortages over time; an increase in temperature will initially result in a rapid rise in water melting from glaciers in the summer, followed by a retreat in glaciers and a decrease in the melt and consequently the water supply every year as the size of these glaciers get smaller and smaller.[5]

Thermal expansion of water and increased melting of oceanic glaciers from an increase in temperature gives way to a rise in sea level, which can affect the fresh water supply of coastal areas as well; as river mouths and deltas with higher salinity get pushed further inland, an intrusion of saltwater results in an increase of salinity in reservoirs and aquifers.[7] Sea-level rise may also consequently be caused by a depletion of groundwater,[9] as climate change can affect the hydrologic cycle in a number of ways. Uneven distributions of increased temperatures and increased precipitation around the globe results in water surpluses and deficits,[8] but a global decrease in groundwater suggests a rise in sea level, even after meltwater and thermal expansion were accounted for,[9] which can provide a positive feedback to the problems sea-level rise causes to fresh-water supply.

A rise in air temperature results in a rise in water temperature, which is also very significant in water degradation, as the water would become more susceptible to bacterial growth. An increase in water temperature can also affect ecosystems greatly because of a species' sensitivity to temperature, and also by inducing changes in a body of water's self-purification system from decreased amounts of dissolved oxygen in the water due to rises in temperature.[5]

Climate change and precipitation[edit]

A rise in global temperatures is also predicted to correlate with an increase in global precipitation, but because of increased runoff, floods, increased rates of soil erosion, and mass movement of land, a decline in water quality is probable, while water will carry more nutrients, it will also carry more contaminants.[5] While most of the attention about climate change is directed towards global warming and greenhouse effect, some of the most severe effects of climate change are likely to be from changes in precipitation, evapotranspiration, runoff, and soil moisture. It is generally expected that, on average, global precipitation will increase, with some areas receiving increases and some decreases.

Climate models show that while some regions should expect an increase in precipitation,[8] such as in the tropics and higher latitudes, other areas are expected to see a decrease, such as in the subtropics; this will ultimately cause a latitudinal variation in water distribution.[5] The areas receiving more precipitation are also expected to receive this increase during their winter and actually become drier during their summer,[8] creating even more of a variation of precipitation distribution. Naturally, the distribution of precipitation across the planet is very uneven, causing constant variations in water availability in respective locations.

Changes in precipitation affect the timing and magnitude of floods and droughts, shift runoff processes, and alter groundwater recharge rates. Vegetation patterns and growth rates will be directly affected by shifts in precipitation amount and distribution, which will in turn affect agriculture as well as natural ecosystems. Decreased precipitation will deprive areas of water, causing water tables to fall and reservoirs and wetlands, rivers, and lakes to empty,[8] and possibly an increase in evaporation and evapotranspiration, depending on the accompanied rise in temperature.[7] Groundwater reserves will be depleted, and the remaining water has a greater chance of being of poor quality from saline or contaminants on the land surface.[5]

Population growth[edit]

See also: Human overpopulation

The human population on Earth is expanding rapidly which goes hand in hand with the degradation of the environment at large measures. Humanity's appetite for needs is disarranging the environment's natural equilibrium. Production industries are venting smoke and discharging chemicals that are polluting water resources. The smoke that is emitted into the atmosphere holds detrimental gases such as carbon monoxide and sulfur dioxide. The high levels of pollution in the atmosphere form layers that are eventually absorbed into the atmosphere. Organic compounds such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFC’s) have generated an unwanted opening in the ozone layer, which emits higher levels of ultraviolet radiation putting the globe at large threat.

The available fresh water being affected by the climate is also being stretched across an ever-increasing global population. It is estimated that almost a quarter of the global population is living in an area that is using more than 20% of their renewable water supply; water use will rise with population while the water supply is also being aggravated by decreases in streamflow and groundwater caused by climate change. Even though some areas may see an increase in freshwater supply from an uneven distribution of precipitation increase, an increased use of water supply is expected.[10]

An increased population means increased withdrawals from the water supply for domestic, agricultural, and industrial uses, the largest of these being agriculture,[11] believed to be the major non-climate driver of environmental change and water deterioration. The next 50 years will likely be the last period of rapid agricultural expansion, but the larger and wealthier population over this time will demand more agriculture.[12]

Population increase over the last two decades, at least in the United States, has also been accompanied by a shift to an increase in urban areas from rural areas,[13] which concentrates the demand for water into certain areas, and puts stress on the fresh water supply from industrial and human contaminants.[5]Urbanization causes overcrowding and increasingly unsanitary living conditions, especially in developing countries, which in turn exposes an increasingly number of people to disease. About 79% of the world's population is in developing countries, which lack access to sanitary water and sewer systems, giving rises to disease and deaths from contaminated water and increased numbers of disease-carrying insects.[14]


Agriculture is dependent on available soil moisture, which is directly affected by climate dynamics, with precipitation being the input in this system and various processes being the output, such as evapotranspiration, surface runoff, drainage, and percolation into groundwater. Changes in climate, especially the changes in precipitation and evapotranspiration predicted by climate models, will directly affect soil moisture, surface runoff, and groundwater recharge.

In areas with decreasing precipitation as predicted by the climate models, soil moisture may be substantially reduced.[8] With this in mind, agriculture in most areas needs irrigation already, which depletes fresh water supplies both by the physical use of the water and the degradation agriculture causes to the water. Irrigation increases salt and nutrient content in areas that would not normally be affected, and damages streams and rivers from damming and removal of water. Fertilizer enters both human and livestock waste streams that eventually enter groundwater, while nitrogen, phosphorus, and other chemicals from fertilizer can acidify both soils and water. Certain agricultural demands may increase more than others with an increasingly wealthier global population, and meat is one commodity expected to double global food demand by 2050,[12] which directly affects the global supply of fresh water. Cows need water to drink, more if the temperature is high and humidity is low, and more if the production system the cow is in is extensive, since finding food takes more effort. Water is needed in processing of the meat, and also in the production of feed for the livestock. Manure can contaminate bodies of freshwater, and slaughterhouses, depending on how well they are managed, contribute waste such as blood, fat, hair, and other bodily contents to supplies of fresh water.[15]

The transfer of water from agricultural to urban and suburban use raises concerns about agricultural sustainability, rural socioeconomic decline, food security, an increased carbon footprint from imported food, and decreased foreign trade balance.[11] The depletion of fresh water, as applied to more specific and populated areas, increases fresh water scarcity among the population and also makes populations susceptible to economic, social, and political conflict in a number of ways; rising sea levels forces migration from coastal areas to other areas farther inland, pushing populations closer together breaching borders and other geographical patterns, and agricultural surpluses and deficits from the availability of water induce trade problems and economies of certain areas.[10] Climate change is an important cause of involuntary migration and forced displacement[16] According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, global greenhouse gas emissions from animal agriculture exceeds that of transportation.[17]

Water management[edit]

The issue of the depletion of fresh water can be met by increased efforts in water management.[6] While water management systems are often flexible, adaptation to new hydrologic conditions may be very costly.[8] Preventative approaches are necessary to avoid high costs of inefficiency and the need for rehabilitation of water supplies,[6] and innovations to decrease overall demand may be important in planning water sustainability.[11]

Water supply systems, as they exist now, were based on the assumptions of the current climate, and built to accommodate existing river flows and flood frequencies. Reservoirs are operated based on past hydrologic records, and irrigation systems on historical temperature, water availability, and crop water requirements; these may not be a reliable guide to the future. Re-examining engineering designs, operations, optimizations, and planning, as well as re-evaluating legal, technical, and economic approaches to manage water resources are very important for the future of water management in response to water degradation. Another approach is water privatization; despite its economic and cultural effects, service quality and overall quality of the water can be more easily controlled and distributed. Rationality and sustainability is appropriate, and requires limits to overexploitation and pollution, and efforts in conservation.[6]

See also[edit]


External links[edit]

  1. ^Johnson, D.L., S.H. Ambrose, T.J. Bassett, M.L. Bowen, D.E. Crummey, J.S. Isaacson, D.N. Johnson, P. Lamb, M. Saul, and A.E. Winter-Nelson. 1997. Meanings of environmental terms. Journal of Environmental Quality 26: 581–589.
  2. ^Chertow, M.R., "The IPAT equation and its variants", Journal of Industrial Ecology, 4 (4):13–29, 2001.
  3. ^Huesemann, Michael H., and Joyce A. Huesemann (2011). Technofix: Why Technology Won’t Save Us or the Environment, Chapter 6, "Sustainability or Collapse?", New Society Publishers, ISBN 0865717044.
  4. ^"ISDR : Terminology". The International Strategy for Disaster Reduction. 2004-03-31. Retrieved 2010-06-09. 
  5. ^ abcdefgh”Water.” Climate Institute. Web. Retrieved 2011-11-03.
  6. ^ abcdYoung, Gordon J., James Dooge, and John C. Rodda. Global Water Resource Issues. Cambridge UP, 2004.
  7. ^ abcFrederick, Kenneth D., and David C. Major. “Climate Change and Water Resources.” Climatic Change 37.1 (1997): p 7-23.
  8. ^ abcdefgRagab, Ragab, and Christel Prudhomme. "Soil and Water: Climate Change and Water Resources Management in Arid and Semi-Arid Regions: Prospective Challenges for the 21st Century". Biosystems Engineering 81.1 (2002): p 3-34.
  9. ^ abKonikow, Leonard F. "Contribution of Global Groundwater Depletion since 1990 to Sea-level Rise". Geophysical Research Letters 38.17 (2011).
  10. ^ abRaleigh, Clionadh, and Henrik Urdal. “Climate Change, Environmental Degradation, and Armed Conflict.” Political Geography 26.6 (2007): 674–94.
  11. ^ abcMacDonald, Glen M. "Water, Climate Change, and Sustainability in the Southwest". PNAS 107.50 (2010): p 56-62.
  12. ^ abTilman, David, Joseph Fargione, Brian Wolff, Carla D'Antonio, Andrew Dobson, Robert Howarth, David Scindler, William Schlesinger, Danielle Simberloff, and Deborah Swackhamer. "Forecasting Agriculturally Driven Global Environmental Change". Science 292.5515 (2011): p 281-84.
  13. ^Wallach, Bret. Understanding the Cultural Landscape. New York; Guilford, 2005.
  14. ^[1]. Powell, Fannetta. "Environmental Degradation and Human Disease". Lecture. SlideBoom. 2009. Web. Retrieved 2011-11-14.
  15. ^"Environmental Implications of the Global Demand for Red Meat". Web. Retrieved 2011-11-14.
  16. ^Bogumil Terminski, Environmentally-Induced Displacement. Theoretical Frameworks and Current Challenges
  17. ^Wang, George C. (April 9, 2017). "Go vegan, save the planet". CNN. Retrieved April 16, 2017. 


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