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:
- 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 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
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.