Drawing on the important intersections between the environment and equity at the global level, we explore the links at the community and household levels. We also highlight countries and groups that have broken the pattern, emphasizing transformations in gender roles and in empowerment.
A key theme: the most disadvantaged people carry a double burden of deprivation. More vulnerable to the wider effects of environmental degradation, they must also cope with threats to their immediate environment posed by indoor air pollution, dirty water and unimproved sanitation. Our Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI), introduced in the 2010 HDR and estimated this year for 109 countries, provides a closer look at these deprivations to see where they are most acute.
The MPI measures serious deficits in health, education and living standards, looking at both the number of deprived people and the intensity of their deprivations (figure 6). This year we explore the pervasiveness of environmental deprivations among the multidimensionally poor and their overlaps at the household level, an innovation in the MPI.
The poverty-focused lens allows us to examine environmental deprivations in access to modern cooking fuel, clean water and basic sanitation. These absolute deprivations, important in themselves, are major violations of human rights. Ending these deprivations could increase higher order capabilities, expanding people’s choices and advancing human development.
In developing countries at least 6 people in 10 experience one of these environmental deprivations, and 4 in 10 experience two or more. These deprivations are especially acute among multidimensionally poor people, more than 9 in 10 of whom experience at least one. Most suffer overlapping deprivations: 8 in 10 multidimensionally poor people have two or more, and nearly 1 in 3 (29 percent) is deprived in all three. These environmental deprivations disproportionately contribute to multidimensional poverty, accounting for 20 percent of the MPI— above their 17 percent weight in the index. Across most developing countries deprivations are highest in access to cooking fuel, though lack of water is paramount in several Arab States.
To better understand environmental deprivations, we analysed the patterns for given poverty levels. Countries were ordered by the share of multidimensionally poor people facing one environmental deprivation and the share facing all three. The analysis shows that the shares of the population with environmental deprivations rise with the MPI, but with much variation around the trend. Table 2 identifies the 10 countries with the least environmental deprivation among their multidimensionally poor, controlling for their MPI (left column). Countries with the lowest share of poor people facing at least one deprivation are mainly in the Arab States and Latin American and the Caribbean (7 of the top 10).
Of the countries with the fewest multidimensionally poor people with all three environmental deprivations, better performers are concentrated in South Asia— 5 of the top 10 (see table 2, right column). Several South Asian countries have reduced some environmental deprivations, notably access to potable water, even as other deprivations have remained severe. And five countries are in both top 10 lists— not only is their environmental poverty relatively low, it is also less intense.
Performance on these indicators does not necessarily identify environmental risks and degradation more broadly, for example, in terms of exposure to floods. At the same time the poor, more subject to direct environmental threats, are also more exposed to environmental degradation writ large.
We investigate this pattern further by looking at the relationship between the MPI and stresses posed by climate change. For 130 nationally defined administrative regions in 15 countries, we compare area-specific MPIs with changes in precipitation and temperature. Overall, the poorest regions and locales in these countries seem to have gotten hotter but not much wetter or drier— change that is consistent with evidence exploring the effects of climate change on income poverty.
Environmental degradation stunts people’s capabilities in many ways, going beyond incomes and livelihoods to include impacts on health, education and other dimensions of well-being.
Bad environments and health— overlapping deprivations
The disease burden arising from indoor and outdoor air pollution, dirty water and unimproved sanitation is greatest for people in poor countries, especially for deprived groups. Indoor air pollution kills 11 times more people living in low HDI countries than people elsewhere. Disadvantaged groups in low, medium and high HDI countries face greater risk from outdoor air pollution because of both higher exposure and greater vulnerability. In low HDI countries more than 6 people in 10 lack ready access to improved water, while nearly 4 in 10 lack sanitary toilets, contributing to both disease and malnourishment. Climate change threatens to worsen these disparities through the spread of tropical diseases such as malaria and dengue fever and through declining crop yields.
The World Health Organization’s Global Burden of Disease database provides some striking findings on the repercussions of environmental factors, including that unclean water and inadequate sanitation and hygiene are among the 10 leading causes of disease worldwide. Each year environment-related diseases, including acute respiratory infections and diarrhoea, kill at least 3 million children under age 5— more than the entire under-five populations of Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands, Portugal and Switzerland combined.
Environmental degradation and climate change affect physical and social environments, knowledge, assets and behaviours. Dimensions of disadvantage can interact, compounding adverse impacts— for example, the intensity of health risks is highest where water and sanitation are inadequate, deprivations that often coincide. Of the 10 countries with the highest rates of death from environmental disasters, 6 are also in the top 10 in the MPI, including Niger, Mali and Angola (figure 7).
Impeding education advances for disadvantaged children, especially girls
Despite near universal primary school enrolment in many parts of the world, gaps remain. Nearly 3 in 10 children of primary school age in low HDI countries are not even enrolled in primary school, and multiple constraints, some environmental, persist even for enrolled children. Lack of electricity, for example, has both direct and indirect effects. Electricity access can enable better lighting, allowing increased study time, as well as the use of modern stoves, reducing time spent collecting fuelwood and water, activities shown to slow education progress and lower school enrolment. Girls are more often adversely affected because they are more likely to combine resource collection and schooling. Access to clean water and improved sanitation is also especially important for girls’ education, affording them health gains, time savings and privacy.
Household environmental deprivations can coincide with wider environmental stresses, constricting people’s choices in a wide range of contexts and making it harder to earn a living from natural resources: people have to work more to achieve the same returns or may even have to migrate to escape environmental degradation.
Resource-dependent livelihoods are time consuming, especially where households face a lack of modern cooking fuel and clean water. And time-use surveys offer a window into the associated gender-based inequalities. Women typically spend many more hours than men do fetching wood and water, and girls often spend more time than boys do. Women’s heavy involvement in these activities has also been shown to prevent them from engaging in higher return activities.
As argued in the 2009 HDR, mobility— allowing people to choose where they live— is important for expanding people’s freedoms and achieving better outcomes. But legal constraints make migration risky. Estimating how many people move to escape environmental stresses is difficult because other factors are in play, notably poverty. Nevertheless, some estimates are very high.
Environmental stress has also been linked to an increased likelihood of conflict. The link is not direct, however, and is influenced by the broader political economy and contextual factors that make individuals, communities and society vulnerable to the effects of environmental degradation.
Alongside pernicious chronic threats, environmental degradation can amplify the likelihood of acute threats, with disequalizing impacts. Our analysis suggests that a 10 percent increase in the number of people affected by an extreme weather event reduces a country’s HDI almost 2 percent, with larger effects on incomes and in medium HDI countries.
And the burden is not borne equally: the risk of injury and death from floods, high winds and landslides is higher among children, women and the elderly, especially for the poor. The striking gender inequality of natural disasters suggests that inequalities in exposure— as well as in access to resources, capabilities and opportunities— systematically disadvantage some women by making them more vulnerable.
Children disproportionately suffer from weather shocks because the lasting effects of malnourishment and missing school limit their prospects. Evidence from many developing countries shows how transitory income shocks can cause households to pull children out of school. More generally, several factors condition households’ exposure to adverse shocks and their capacity to cope, including the type of shock, socioeconomic status, social capital and informal support, and the equity and effectiveness of relief and reconstruction efforts.
Transformations in gender roles and empowerment have enabled some countries and groups to improve environmental sustainability and equity, advancing human development.
Our Gender Inequality Index (GII), updated this year for 145 countries, shows how reproductive health constraints contribute to gender inequality. This is important because in countries where effective control of reproduction is universal, women have fewer children, with attendant gains for maternal and child health and reduced greenhouse gas emissions. For instance, in Cuba, Mauritius, Thailand and Tunisia, where reproductive healthcare and contraceptives are readily available, fertility rates are below two births per woman. But substantial unmet need persists worldwide, and evidence suggests that if all women could exercise reproductive choice, population growth would slow enough to bring greenhouse gas emissions below current levels. Meeting unmet need for family planning by 2050 would lower the world’s carbon emissions an estimated 17 percent below what they are today.
The GII also focuses on women’s participation in political decision-making, highlighting that women lag behind men across the world, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and the Arab States. This has important implications for sustainability and equity. Because women often shoulder the heaviest burden of resource collection and are the most exposed to indoor air pollution, they are often more affected than men by decisions related to natural resources. Recent studies reveal that not only is women’s participation important but also how they participate— and how much. And because women often show more concern for the environment, support proenvironmental policies and vote for proenvironmental leaders, their greater involvement in politics and in nongovernmental organizations could result in environmental gains, with multiplier effects across all the Millennium Development Goals.
These arguments are not new, but they reaffirm the value of expanding women’s effective freedoms. Thus, women’s participation in decision-making has both intrinsic value and instrumental importance in addressing equity and environmental degradation.
As argued in the 2010 HDR, empowerment has many aspects, including formal, procedural democracy at the national level and participatory processes at the local level. Political empowerment at the national and subnational levels has been shown to improve environmental sustainability. And while context is important, studies show that democracies are typically more accountable to voters and more likely to support civil liberties. A key challenge everywhere, however, is that even in democratic systems, the people most adversely affected by environmental degradation are often the worst off and least empowered, so policy priorities do not reflect their interests and needs.
Evidence is accumulating that power inequalities, mediated through political institutions, affect environmental outcomes in a range of countries and contexts. This means that poor people and other disadvantaged groups disproportionately suffer the effects of environmental degradation. New analysis for the Report covering some 100 countries confirms that greater equity in power distribution, broadly defined, is positively associated with better environmental outcomes, including better access to water, less land degradation and fewer deaths due to indoor and outdoor air pollution and dirty water— suggesting an important scope for positive synergies.