Two Meanings of Environment

How does the environment relate to poverty? In the context of poverty, what does the word “environment” mean? How are these two broad ideas connected?

Poverty and the environment are directly connected in their influence and impact on people’s lives. The term “environment” has two primary meanings, and both meanings affect the world’s poor.

A traditional understanding of environment refers to the natural environment and the ecosystems in it. This is the natural disaster, deforestation and pollution-type of environment. But environment also pertains to the circumstances and conditions in which a person lives.

Is there easy access to clean drinking water and proper sanitation facilities? Is a person homeless and living without proper shelter or is the family living in a crowded slum tenement? Is it safe for a child to walk to school or does the threat of gang violence prevent children from attending school?

Poverty and the Natural Environment

We are intricately connected to our natural environment. We receive food and water from it. It provides a livelihood for many, and it contributes to our prosperity and well-being. Three important ways nature touches poverty are through:

  • Deforestation.
  • Water pollution.
  • Air quality.

Deforestation, the removal of or clearance of forest, affects billions of people worldwide.

According to the World Wildlife Fund, over 300 million people call the forest home, and 1.6 billion people depend on it for their livelihood.1 When deforestation occurs, people get displaced from their homes and the resources they depend on to live disappear.

Without the forest, poverty increases.

About 350 million people who live within or close to dense forests depend on them for their subsistence and income.2

As trees and vegetation are removed, soil erodes into nearby water systems and rainwater slides along the earth’s surface without soaking in. Substantial and destructive flooding occurs when soil doesn’t absorb water and communities don’t have infrastructure in place to handle the runoff. Homes, schools and property get destroyed and many people lose their lives.

Additionally, trees and vegetation add nutrients to the soil. Unbalanced, nutrient-deficient soil makes farming more difficult. Crop and food production suffers, hurting farmers’ ability to earn income and provide for their families.

Water Pollution

Water pollution occurs when any harmful substance contaminates a water system and the ecosystem flowing through it. Polluted water presents problems for people who rely upon natural water sources for clean drinking water as well as for farmers and the fishing industry.

The World Bank estimates that the world generates 2.01 billion tons of solid waste each year and at least one-third is not managed in an environmentally safe manner.3 Without proper disposal, trash makes its way into water systems affecting the water’s ecosystem.

Every element in an ecosystem has a specific job. When a water ecosystem is working correctly, the water is clean and contains the necessary components for plants and aquatic life to survive. When they are out of balance, the natural state of things is disrupted.

For instance, water that is deficient in oxygen (hypoxic) causes algae blooms and a decrease in freshwater plant and animal life. This hurts economies dependent on fishing for income and trade and can lead to malnutrition for people who rely on fish as a main source of protein.

At least 200 million people rely on freshwater fish as their major source of protein, and 60 million people — more than half of them women — depend on freshwater fish for their livelihoods.4

When a water ecosystem has too much nitrogen in it, which can be caused by fecal contamination, algae can rapidly grow, leading to algae blooms and hypoxic water systems as well.

Contaminated water and poor sanitation can also transmit diseases such as diarrhea, dengue fever, cholera, dysentery, hepatitis A, typhoid and polio.5

Air Quality

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 9 out of 10 people breathe air containing high level of pollutants, and the people living in low- and middle-income countries experience the highest exposure.6 But it’s children who tend to suffer the most, as exposure to air pollutants can lead to lifelong disease, disability, premature death and reduced learning potential.

When poverty and childhood are combined, the effect and potential damage is even greater because early childhood development is critical to helping children develop into healthy and fulfilled adults.

In low-income countries, over 90% of waste is often disposed in unregulated dumps or is openly burned.7 Burning trash creates pollutants that affect water, air and soil. These pollutants are also harmful to human health and cause problems such as heart disease, lung cancer and respiratory diseases such as emphysema.

Poverty and the Contextual Environment

Where a person lives greatly affects how they develop and who they become. A person’s physical surroundings and contextual environment dictate the challenges of daily life and the opportunities a person has to thrive.

Climate, housing options, land availability, water supply, insects that carry disease, waterborne illnesses, local infrastructure, access to health care, etc. all contribute to a person’s quality of life and standard of living.

For instance, the contextual environment determines the likelihood a child lives past his or her first birthday. It also affects a child’s chance of completing primary school or dictates the risk of being forced into child labor or becoming a child soldier or trafficking victim.

A child’s contextual environment can also exacerbate physical health problems and affect his or her mental health. Overcrowded urban areas with high numbers of poor living in slums increase the risk of disease transmission, especially during a pandemic or health emergency, and increase the death toll when violence erupts or a natural disaster occurs.

Family structure is also an environmental element that affects a child’s development. Are both parents present? Is a grandparent, aunt or uncle the primary caregiver? How many children are in the family? Is the child an orphan?

The stress of extreme poverty can lead to violence and abuse in the home, and violence against children can have a lifelong impact.

“Children exposed to violence and other adversities are more likely to drop out of school, have difficulty finding and keeping a job, and are at a heightened risk for later victimization and/or perpetration of interpersonal and self-directed violence, by which violence against children can affect the next generation.”8

Providing Healthy Environments for Children in Need

Since poverty is a complex issue affecting every aspect of a person’s existence, releasing a child from poverty means we must address all the causes and all the ways poverty ensnares a child.

It requires an approach that tackles every aspect and type of poverty, and it involves addressing both the natural and contextual environmental issues and conditions.

It involves creating healthy environments where children can grow and learn in safety, places where they know they are being cared for and protected, and places where they can stop fighting to survive and begin learning to thrive.

When you sponsor a child, you provide critical and practical assistance to reshape that child’s current and future environment. Through your sponsorship, you attack poverty on your child’s behalf by providing medical care, nourishing food, access to clean water, education opportunities, support from caring adults and more.

No matter how you define environmental poverty, you can have a part in redefining its impact on a child.

Offer a Safe, Nurturing and Healthy Environment to a Child in Need. Sponsor a Child Now!

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1 “Forest Habitat.” WWF, World Wildlife Fund,

2 “Forests.” World Bank, 16 Oct. 2020,

3 “What a Waste 2.0.” Trends in Solid Waste Management,

4 “One-Third of Freshwater Fish Face Extinction and Other Freshwater Fish Facts.” WWF, World Wildlife Fund, 23 Feb. 2021,

5 “Drinking-Water.” World Health Organization, World Health Organization, June 2019,

6 “Air Pollution.” World Health Organization, World Health Organization,

7 “Solid Waste Management.” World Bank, 23 Sept. 2019,

8 “Violence against Children.” World Health Organization, World Health Organization, 8 June 2020,