Urban poverty and environmental degradation: Vicious cycle | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, April 24, 2010 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, April 24, 2010

Urban poverty and environmental degradation: Vicious cycle


GREEN' issues are spearheading discussions on resource management, biodiversity and global warming, while the environmental problems known as 'Brown Agenda' have been neglected for a long time. Challenges in addressing and meeting the brown agenda in the cities have acquired prominence among the planning and development professionals around the world. It is well accepted that rapid urbanisation has aggravated problems like sanitation and drainage, solid waste management, degradation of soil and land, uncontrolled emissions from the domestic and industrial activities, street and abode congestions and improper disposal of hazardous waste resulting in poor health of people. Cities and towns have been hubs of economic development but how this economic development must be achieved in the first place? Do the rapid industrialisation, urbanisation and development of communication network add impetus to economic development at the cost of environment?
The root causes of environmental degradation in urban areas are the unplanned and hardly coordinated inter-play of socio-economic, institutional and technical activities. There are many factors, which may have greater impacts on the urban environment but poverty still remains at the root of several environmental problems. Let us try to understand the urban poverty and environmental degradation before blaming each other.
Urbanisation and industrialisation have provided livelihood and opportunities to the millions of people but at the same time they have brought in the accompanied problems such as waste disposal, environmental degradation, accumulation of problems in homes and work places, disease-causing agents and pollutants, contamination of air, soil, surface water etc. The more we achieved rapid growth of industrial production, the more we experienced problems related to industrial pollution.
Urban environmental degradation in the least developed countries (LDCs) is associated with households and businesses those are not served by sewers, drains and solid waste collection facility. Lack of or improper sewage treatment plant is contributing to the water pollution problem. Sources of air pollution are uncontrolled emissions from industries and increasing number of motor vehicles which are often without catalyst converters and have poorly maintained engines.
The answers to basic reasons for persistence of poverty can be traced to environmental degradation in urban areas. The urban poor are usually the most exposed to weather and thus most affected by environmental pollution. Again attempts to tackle environmental problems without addressing poverty are likely to fail for the helpless poor would habitually pollute it. Poverty reduction and effective environmental management is mutually dependent. Poverty is both cause and effect of environmental degradation.
This relationship between poverty and environmental degradation is of course an extremely complex phenomenon. Inequalities and lack of opportunities, social exclusion, lack of access to essential utilities foster un-sustainability among a section of population which results in environmental degradation because they do not find any other way but to using the available alternatives e.g. drains for toilet, live in a place which is already polluted, use contaminated water, generate waste vitiating the environment further.
It is well accepted that large population puts stress on the environment, society and resources. This not only requires destruction of more and more natural resources but also generates large number of waste which is associated with environmental stresses like loss of biodiversity, water pollution, air pollution and increased pressure on arable land. Over-consumption and unsustainable development may have the greater impacts and that is why the choices of how to use the resources and for what purposes are critical issues.
Furthermore, economic opportunities in the urban areas and their absence in the rural have created a huge urban-rural gap. Lack of opportunities for employment and associated stresses are leading to ever-increasing migration of rural poor families to the towns. Urban slums are expanding due to increasing population in the cities.
This rapid and unplanned expansion of the cities has resulted in the degradation of urban environment. The city of Dhaka is a classic example of this. Huge pressures have been created on the infrastructure and utilities such as energy, housing, transport, education, water supply, sewerage system and recreational amenities. These in turn speed up the deterioration of urban environment and the proliferation of slums contributes further to urban poverty.
If we look for some of the envisaged actions such as improved provision for water and sanitation, less crowded, better quality housing, improved provision for storm and surface water drainage, avoidance of hazardous sites for settlements, promotion of cleaner household fuels and improved provision for solid-waste management then probably financial needs would stand in the front row and one would argue that due to lack of money the poorer countries cannot build these infrastructures.
Well, they have to choose the model of economic growth, which requires exploitation of natural resources for expanding production. In rich countries, mass production and consumption is a major cause of environmental degradation and destruction of natural resources. In the poor countries, the creation of value and access to subsistence are typically linked to sacrificing environmental quality for short-term economic gain.
Poorer nations are introducing the neo-liberal policies, which turn rich people even richer, while the poor become poorer. Material consumption has also increased as a result, so there also more resources are being used to produce/purchase these goods than in meeting the needs of the majority poor. This has further led to 'blaming the victims' for their poverty.
Blaming poverty as a principal cause of urban environmental degradation will be one-sided narrowly focused conclusion. If poverty is a major concern in urban environment, conversely environmental degradation needs to be of great concern as well for further ill being of the poor. The poor are caught in a vicious cycle.
By both renewable and non-renewable resources, causing waste generation and green house gas emissions high-income groups are far worst than low-income groups in creating environmental degradation.
Ameliorating urban poverty and preventing further environmental degradation or vice versa, the government needs to focus on the urban infrastructure development with urban environmental management.

Yousuf Jamil is a UK-based environmentalist.

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