Linking Population, Poverty and Development

Environmental Sustainability: Population, Poverty and the Environment

Environmental sustainability is essential to achieving the Millennium Development Goals, especially poverty reduction. Changes in population size, rate of growth and distribution have a far-reaching impact on the environment and on development prospects.

The largest population increases and the most fragile environmental conditions are usually found in poor countries, which typically have limited financial means and least adequate political and managerial resources to address the challenges. This threatens sustainable development and produces further deterioration in living standards and quality of life. Environmental crises, including those brought on by changing weather patterns, have the greatest impact on the poor in developing countries.

Achieving the goals of the Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD), especially universal access to gender-sensitive and quality reproductive health services, will help to achieve a more favourable equation between population and available resources.

Explicitly integrating population into economic and development strategies will both speed up the pace of sustainable development and poverty alleviation and contribute to the achievement of population objectives and an improved quality of life of the population.

— ICPD Programme of Action, para 3.3

In the rural environment, land fragmentation, eroded slopes and degraded soils are contributing to poverty, hunger and migration. The unplanned rapid growth of cities, fed partly by migrants from rural areas, is creating intense pressure on local ecosystems and has, in some cases, overwhelmed environmental resources. Millions have settled in slums and shantytowns without adequate shelter and basic services, including clean water and sanitation.

Poverty and environmental stress

The majority of the rural poor have increasingly become clustered on low-potential land. This has resulted from a combination of factors that vary in importance from one country to another – land expropriation, demographic pressures, intergenerational land fragmentation, privatization of common lands, and consolidation and expansion of commercial agriculture with reduced need for labour.

Demographic pressures, among others, continue to play an underlying role in the geographical, economic and social marginalization of the poor in most countries where there is a high incidence of poverty. Because they have been pushed or squeezed out of high-potential land, the rural poor often have no choice but to overexploit the marginal resources available to them through low-input, low-productivity agricultural practices, such as overgrazing, soil-mining and deforestation, with consequent land degradation.

Human-induced climate change is expected to negatively impact agricultural productivity throughout the tropics and sub-tropics, decrease water quantity and quality in most arid and semi-arid regions, increase the incidence of malaria, dengue and other vector borne diseases in the tropics and sub-tropics, and harm ecological systems and their biodiversity, according to the World Bank. In addition, the sea level rise associated with expected increases in temperature could displace tens of millions of people living in low-lying areas, such as the Ganges and the Nile deltas, and threatens the very existence of small island states.

Food and water security

Food and water security are becoming increasingly critical issues in many developing countries, especially where poverty and environmental degradation are endemic. People remain undernourished due to poverty, political instability, economic inefficiency and social inequity. Population growth is creating a demand for stepped-up food sufficiency. While world food production is projected to meet consumption demands for the next two decades, long-term forecasts indicate persistent and possibly worsening food insecurity in many countries, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that to meet the needs of the world's population in 2020, food production will have to double.

The Millennium Declaration target is to halve the proportion of people without access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation by 2015. More than 1 billion people lack clean water and more than 2.5 billion live without adequate sanitation. Many countries facing water scarcity are low-income societies with rapidly growing populations that are generally unable to make costly investments in water-saving technologies. Providing safe drinking water becomes a greater challenge as economic development and population growth place increasing demands on limited water resources.

In many less developed countries, increasing attention is being given to the critical role of women in population and environment programmes and in achieving sustainable development. Women make vital contributions to resource management and conservation. They provide food, fuel, fodder and water; are the caretakers of their familys health; and act as conservationists by safeguarding forests, soil, water and grazing areas. Women grow a substantial proportion of the world's food. Appropriate and integrated social, population and sustainable development policies and programmes that empower the poor, especially women, are needed to support a sustainable future.

UNFPA at work

UNFPA promotes the integration of population factors in national development frameworks, poverty reduction strategies and environmental planning and management. The Fund works to raise awareness and promote a deeper understanding among policymakers of the relationship between population, environment and development. UNFPA facilitates policy dialogue and supports training and capacity building, research and data collection in this area. It also supports advocating for population, environmental and poverty reduction activities at global, regional and national levels. For instance, UNFPA provided a grant to the Women's Environment Development Organization (WEDO) to reprint and translate publications developed jointly with UNFPA that underscore the important role that women play in issues relating to the environment and sustainable development.

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Page last updated: 15 December 2005