News / Science & Technology

Report: Environmental Degradation Threatens Global Progress for Poor

A Somali man from southern Somalia cuts tree branches to construct a makeshift shelter in refugee camp in Mogadishu, Somalia, August 11, 2011.
A Somali man from southern Somalia cuts tree branches to construct a makeshift shelter in refugee camp in Mogadishu, Somalia, August 11, 2011.
Lisa Schlein

This year's Human Development Report warns environmental degradation threatens global progress for the poor. It says inaction on climate change and habitat destruction is jeopardizing health and the pursuit of higher income in developing countries.

The 2011 Human Development Report warns development progress in the world's poorest countries could be halted or even reversed by mid-century because of environmental degradation.  

It says this can be stopped if bold steps are taken now to slow climate change, prevent further environmental damage, and reduce deep inequalities within and among nations.  

The report notes both developing and developed countries have made significant progress in human development since 1980. But it argues many of these gains will be lost if environmental deterioration goes unchecked.

Lead author of the report Jeni Klugman says nations in sub-Saharan Africa are at particular risk.

"The main problems that we see in sub-Saharan Africa are around land degradation and desertification, which are affecting livelihoods of many millions of people, obviously in rural areas," said Klugman.  "We also see some significant problems around access to water and safe sanitation in both rural and urban areas."  

The report says half of all malnutrition in sub-Saharan Africa is caused by environmental factors. It says environmental degradation is expected to cut agricultural productivity and cause food prices to soar by up to 50 percent in the coming decades.  

It says environmental deterioration could undermine decades of efforts to expand water, sanitation and access to electricity to the world's poorest communities. While drought in sub-Saharan Africa is of concern, the authors say sea level rises in low-lying nations in South Asia and the Pacific will put more than 100 million people at risk in the decades ahead.

A key feature of the report is its Human Development Index, which ranks countries on their achievements in health, education and income. This year, Norway, Australia and the Netherlands top the rankings of 187 countries, while the Democratic Republic of Congo, Niger and Burundi are at the bottom.  

Klugman draws a comparison between the best- and worst-achieving countries.

"For example, life expectance in Democratic Republic of Congo is 48 years if someone is born today, whereas if they were born in Norway, it would be 81 years," noted Klugman.  "So, it is a huge difference. And, if you go to each of the components of the index, so for example, the average number of years that you would expect a child to go to school in Norway is nearly 13. If they are in the DRC, it is only three-and-one-half years. So, it is just stark differences."  

The United States, New Zealand, Canada, Ireland, Liechtenstein, Germany and Sweden round out the top 10 countries in the 2011 Human Development Index. The 10 countries that place last in the rankings are all in sub-Saharan Africa.

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