|"Sustainable development" connotes
the processes by which people satisfy their needs and improve their quality of life in the
present while safeguarding the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. For
most people, a better quality of life means a higher standard of living, usually measured
in terms of income level and uses of resources and technology. Inherent in the concept of
sustainable development is the principle of equity: in order to achieve economic and
environmental goals, social goals such as universal access to education, health
care and economic opportunity must also be achieved.
At any level of development, human impact on the
environment is a function of population size, per capita consumption and the environmental
damage caused by the technology used to produce what is consumed. People in developed
countries have the greatest impact on the global environment. The 20 per cent of the
worlds people living in the highest income countries are responsible for 86 per cent
of total private consumption compared with the poorest 20 per cent, who account for a mere
1.3 per cent. The richest fifth account for 53 per cent of carbon dioxide emissions, the
poorest fifth, 3 per cent. A child born in the industrial world adds more to consumption
and pollution levels in one lifetime than do 30-50 children born in developing countries.
As living standards rise in developing countries, the environmental consequences of
population growth will be amplified with ever-increasing numbers of people aspiring,
justifiably, to "live better." Rather than assign blame in the debate over
environmental challenges, both current and new consumers need to realize and address the
consequences of their levels of consumption.
The difficulty in facing these questions is that the
answers are neither simple nor complete. The most obvious environmental impacts are
usually local, such as the disappearance of forests and associated watersheds, soil
erosion or desertification or the brown haze hovering over cities. Less obvious are
phenomena such as the build-up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the global decline of
fish catches or the pollution of land and water resources with industrial and hazardous
wastes. Further complicating the issue is the lack of data to help researchers determine
trends and accurately measure what is happening, a reflection of the relative youth of the
environmental sciences, disciplines that require expertise across research areas.
Some trends are already obvious, however, particularly with
regard to the three "renewable" resources on which human life depends: land,
water and air. Each year, an estimated 5 to 7 million hectares of agricultural lands are
lost to accelerating land degradation and rapid urbanization. A sixth of the worlds
land area -- nearly 2 billion hectares -- is now degraded as a result of overgrazing and
poor farming practices. Another 16 to 20 million hectares of tropical forests and
woodlands are lost each year.
Water is a finite resource. There is no more water on earth
now than there was 2,000 years ago when the population was less than 3 per cent of its
current size. During this century, while world population has tripled, water withdrawals
have increased by over six times. Today, with water scarcity defined as less than 1,000
cubic metres per person per year, 458 million people in 31 countries face water shortages.
By 2025, close to 3 billion people in 48 countries will be affected by critical water
shortages for all or part of the year.
The pollution and increasing scarcity of renewable fresh
water supplies also threaten human health and welfare. An estimated 1.1 billion people
were without access to clean drinking water in 1994; 2.8 billion people lacked access to
sanitation services. Waterborne diseases infect some 250 million people each year, about
10 million of whom die. The poor are most exposed to fumes and polluted rivers and least
able to protect themselves. Of the estimated 2.7 million deaths each year from air
pollution, 2.2 million are from indoor pollution and 80 per cent of the victims are rural
poor in developing countries.
Today, climate experts worry that continued increases in
atmospheric concentrations of CO2 already 28 per cent higher than pre-industrial
levels could result in sufficient temperature increases to raise sea levels around
the world and seriously disrupt agricultural production.
The impact of population growth in rural areas can push
communities into unsustainable practices, such as the burning and razing of tropical
forests in order to plant crops, over-cropping and subsequent depletion of
fragile arable land and over-pumping of groundwater.
For the past 50 years, food production has kept ahead of
rising demand. Today, in a world where two-thirds of the people depend on rice, wheat
and/or maize as their staple food, 80 countries cannot produce enough food to feed their
own populations from existing land and water resources. According to FAO, world food
production will have to double in order to provide food security for 7.8 billion people
expected by 2025.
Compounding the environmental challenges facing us all are
the needs of more than roughly 1.3 billion people living in absolute poverty. Without
higher standards of living, one-fifth of the worlds people and their children
will continue to suffer malnutrition, disease and illiteracy.
The gradual slowing of population growth already under way
is part of the answer to this environmental dilemma. With slower growth rates, countries
will have more time to prepare for the still inevitable, if smaller, population increases
to come time to build schools, dig sewers and lay water pipes.
North-South cooperation is vital to success in ending
absolute poverty, a further element in the ongoing environmental dilemma. For those eking
out a living, environmentally sound practices are a luxury, not a choice. Developed
countries need to develop technologies which minimize damage to natural systems and make
these new technologies more widely available to developing countries. For both North and
South the ultimate goal should be sustainability in all areas of economic activity,
including agriculture, industry, forestry, fisheries, transportation and tourism.
A favourable international economic climate, featuring
improved and reliable access to developed country markets, debt reduction and an increased
flow of financial resources from North to South, by way of both foreign direct investment
and aid for development, is vital to the success of efforts to alleviate poverty.
Education, basic health care including family
planning and reproductive health care -- and access to land, credit and employment are all
important to poverty alleviation and, therefore, crucial to long-term economic and
environmental sustainability. Above all, however, ensuring sustainability will require
people to make changes, in both the way they think about their environment and how they
live in it. In particular, the high consumption, high-waste lifestyle of the top-earning
fifth of the worlds population, most of whom live in the North, cannot continue
without imperilling the right of the lowest- earning fifth of the worlds population
to satisfy their basic needs.
|The Role of Women
But alleviating the worst of poverty and supporting the trend toward slower
population growth cannot happen without interventions directed at those most affected by
and most able to affect environmental degradation and poverty at the local
level: women. Women make up two-thirds of the worlds poorest people and are nearly
twice as likely as men to be illiterate. They receive less education and less food, and
have fewer legal rights. In every part of the developing world, rural and urban, women are
primarily responsible for finding water and fuelwood and for the preparation of food.
Smoke from fuelwood and dung is more dangerous to health than tobacco smoke, but every day
women have to spend hours cooking over smoky fires. In rural areas, women are often
responsible for the care of livestock and for tending the crops. Yet, only rarely do they
have an ownership stake in the resources with which they labour. Equal access to
education, credit and land, and the enforcement of legal rights would not only benefit
women as individuals, but also contribute to the environmental and economic well-being of
their families and communities. When women have control over economic resources
whether land, income or credit they are more likely than men to spend their
earnings on food, clothes and other basic needs, as is evidenced by examples from
countries such as Bangladesh, Cote dIvoire, Guatemala and Sri Lanka.