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Death Cycle of Poverty and the Environment

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What Is the Relationship Between Poverty and the Environment?

The environment-poverty nexus is a two-way cycle relationship. Environment affects poverty situations in three distinct dimensions:

  1. by providing sources of livelihood to poor people
  2. by affecting their health
  3. by influencing their vulnerability

On the other hand, poverty also affects environment in various ways:

  1. by forcing poor people to degrade environment
  2. by encouraging countries to promote economic growth at the expense of environment
  3. by inducing societies to downgrade environmental concerns, including failing to channel resources to address such concerns (UNDP Report on Development Policy, 2003)

Vulnerable communities in poverty-stricken areas depend on various activities for their livelihoods, including farming and non-farming activities such as agriculture, wage labor, petty hawking and trading, and provision of low-cost transportation services. In many countries, the poor are landless laborers or farmers with landholdings that are too small to serve as an adequate source of income.

In urban areas, the poor support themselves primarily through activities within the informal sector. The environment affects the health and economic opportunities of poor people in both rural and urban areas. In most regions, most poor people live in rural areas and tend to depend directly or indirectly on natural systems for income- generation. Many use products such as timber for fuel, or they convert it into charcoal, which is either used as a source of energy or sold to supplement their income. Thus, environmental resources provide important inputs into the livelihoods of poor people and contribute to their well-being both in urban and rural setups.

The relationships between poverty and environment, and between poor people and natural resources, are complex and have been the subject of extensive debate. Poor people are often impoverished by a declining resource base, and thus forced by their circumstances to degrade the environment further (World Commission on Environment and Development, 1999).

Why Does the Environment Matter to People Living In Poverty?

In order to understand the relationship between poverty and the environment, it is important to clarify why the environment matters to poor people. Poverty-stricken people’s perceptions of well-being are strongly related to the environment in terms of their livelihoods, health, vulnerability, and empowerment to control their own lives. Environment affects people in poverty in terms of three key dimensions: livelihood, health and vulnerability.



Poor people tend to be most dependent upon the environment and the direct use of natural resources, and therefore are the most severely affected when the environment is degraded or their access to natural resources is limited or denied.

The poor, particularly those living in rural areas, often rely on a variety of natural resources (biodiversity) and ecosystem services as a direct source of livelihood. Increasingly, the rural poor live in areas of high ecological vulnerability and relatively low levels of biological or resource productivity, such as subtropical dry lands or steep mountain slopes. (World Bank, 2002)

Poor people are affected by natural resource degradation and biodiversity loss much more because of their limited assets and their greater dependence on common property resources for their livelihoods. For example, in a study in West Africa, children showing growth abnormalities associated with poor nutrition (stunting) were found most frequently in areas of high soil degradation.

Poor rural women are disproportionately affected by natural resource degradation and biodiversity loss. For example, participatory poverty assessments and other studies have shown the increased time, physical burden, and personal risk that women face in having to travel greater distances in order to collect fuel, fodder, and water due to growing resource scarcity or more restricted access to common property areas. This reduces the time spent on income-generating activities, crop production, and household and child-rearing responsibilities.



Poor people suffer most when water, land, and the air are polluted because in most cases they lack the capacity to cope or adjust to the changes in the environment. Environmental risk factors are a major source of health problems in developing countries.

Up to one-fifth of the total burden of disease in the developing world and up to 30 percent in sub-Saharan Africa may be associated with environmental risk factors. The poor, particularly women and children, are most affected by environmental health problems, and traditional environmental hazards—lack of safe water and sanitation, indoor air pollution, and exposure to disease vectors—play by far the largest role (Lvovsky, 2001; WHO, 1997)

Inadequate access to safe drinking water and sanitation, combined with poor hygiene practices, are major causes of ill health and life-threatening disease in developing countries. The rural poor rely on natural water sources such as streams for their washing and drinking water.

Water-related diseases, such as diarrhea and cholera, kill an estimated 3 million people a year in developing countries, the majority of whom are children under the age of five (Murray and Lopez, 1996).

Vector-borne diseases such as malaria account for up to 2.5 million deaths a year and are linked to a range of environmental conditions and factors related to water contamination and inadequate sanitation (WRI, 1998)

Indoor air pollution caused by the burning of traditional biomass fuels (wood, dung, crop residues) for cooking and heating affects 1 billion people, resulting in premature death for an estimated 2 million women and children each year, (Smith, 1999). Outdoor air pollution is becoming a more significant health issue in urban areas of a number of developing countries, especially in large industrializing ones such as China and India, and is projected to become as important a health risk as indoor air pollution over the next two decades.

Pesticide poisoning has also posed significant health problems among poor farmers in developing countries, although the exact extent is not well documented. It is estimated by the World Health Organization that some 3 million cases of acute, severe poisoning per year worldwide were recorded since 1990.



The poor are most often exposed to environmental hazards and environment-related conflict, and they are least capable of coping when changes to the environment occur. Both the rural and the urban poor are most often directly exposed to the consequences of environmental degradation; they suffer the greatest losses (at least in relative terms), and they are in the weakest position to cope and adapt.

Resource mismanagement and environmental degradation can exacerbate the frequency and impact of droughts, floods, forest fires, and other natural hazards. The poor are the most vulnerable to environmental disasters “shocks” as well as to more gradual processes of environmental degradation “stresses” as the majority of the rural poor live in ecologically fragile areas, while the urban poor often live and work in environments with a high exposure to environmental hazards.


How Does Poverty Impact Environment?

While biologically diverse environments can be highly resilient to human disturbances, certain ecosystem types are at particular risk of a sudden collapse.

A large and growing population of rural people struggling to survive in a limited land resource base has led to the exploitation of the environment. Crop production is seriously affected by unreliable rainfall. Yields have been falling due to loss of soil productivity. Land under crop cultivation has been increasing due to increasing population and efforts by farmers to increase total production. Mountain slopes and riverbanks are now under cultivation in most rural areas.

Firewood is a major source of energy for people in rural areas. Firewood extraction from indigenous forests is causing widespread deforestation in rural areas. Firewood is a cheap energy source for rural households especially the poor. Most urban poor to very poor households use firewood for cooking. Illegal sales of firewood are also increasing. As the population grows, so does the demand for energy. People invade forests, mainly near urban areas to collect fuel wood to meet their energy needs. While the poor cannot easily afford the energy sources that are readily available to the middle and upper class, they often have no alternative but to log forested areas for fuel wood and charcoal.

Some households in the rural areas exploit river bed gold deposits, resulting in channel geometry and large amounts of silt that ultimately collect in dams, thus reducing their holding capacity. The rivers are also used as dumping and sewage sites, thereby polluting them.

In urban areas, the poor are engaged in urban agriculture, which has resulted in the destruction of green belts. Streambank cultivation has contributed to the siltation of the urban drainage systems.

Is Poverty a Major Threat to the Environment?

Many international reports claim that poverty is a major cause of environmental degradation, including the World Commission on Environment and Development’s report. Statistics on environmental degradation actually show a very different picture. The stats show that the poor contribute very little to environmental degradation because they use so few resources and generate so few wastes. In regard to non-renewable resource use, most of the houses in which low-income groups live (and often build for themselves) use recycled or reclaimed materials and little use of cement and other materials with a high energy input.

Most low-income groups in urban areas rely on public transport (or they walk or bicycle) which means low average figures for oil consumption per person. On average, they have low levels of electricity consumption, not only because those who are connected use less, but also because a high proportion of low-income households have no electricity.

Low-income urban dwellers have much lower levels of consumption than middle- and upper-income groups: They use much less freshwater, although this is more due to inconvenient and/or expensive supplies than need or choice. They occupy much less land per person than middle and upper-income groups—in extreme cases, the poorest 30-50 percent of a city’s population live on only 3-5 percent of the city’s land area. Low-income groups consume less food and generally have diets that are less energy and land-intensive than higher-income groups.

In regard to waste generation, low-income groups generate much less per person than middle and upper-income groups and the urban poor generally have an ecologically positive role as they are the main reclaimers, re-users and recyclers of wastes from industries, workshops and wealthier households. It is likely to be middle and upper-income groups who consume most of the goods whose fabrication generates most toxic or otherwise hazardous wastes or persistent chemicals whose rising concentration within the environment has worrying ecological and health implications.

It is overwhelmingly the consumption patterns of non-poor groups (especially high-income groups) and the production and distribution systems that serve them that are responsible for most environmental degradation.


It is worth noting that even though the poor have a more direct relationship with the environment compared to the higher income groups, to attribute environmental degradation to them as the major culprits is in most cases exaggerated. They are involved in land degrading schemes, but we have to consider the levels of degradation if we are to make a sound judgment.

Compare a group of villagers chopping down trees for shelter with a timber processing company—which of the two does more damage to the environment? Or a group of villagers bathing and washing in the river compared to mining company discharging its effluents into the river—who pollutes more? Smoke from firewood and smoke from industries—who emits more carbon?

Therefore, when making assertions regarding the relationship between poverty and the environment, it is important to clarify the levels of the relationship before arriving at the conclusion in order to avoid biased assumptions adopted in most reports and the media.


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2019 AL