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Healthy Economy Linked to Healthy Environment

A new report from the World Bank says one out of every five cases of serious disease in developing countries stems from environmental degradation. Poor people in developing countries are the first to suffer when the water is unsafe or the air is polluted.

The environment is killing us.

Consider this: 1.7 million premature deaths each year are attributed to unsafe water, poor sanitation and poor hygiene. And urban air pollution -- especially in rapidly growing cities in the developing world -- is estimated as the cause of another 800,000 premature deaths.

The World Bank report focuses on problems and solutions from a local, regional and global perspective and the direct link between environment and health.

It describes low cost and low-tech steps that local communities can take to reverse the trend. For example, in Ghana a simple hand-washing program helps to reduce the spread of disease.

Indoor air pollution from burning coal and wood is also cause for concern. As a health risk it ranks just below malnutrition and lack of sanitation and drinking water in South Asia. In Nepal family-size biogas reactors turn waste into fuel for heating and cooking and pollute much less.

World Bank Environment Department director Warren Evans says 100,000 of the biogas units are already in place, with a target of 100,000 more by 2009.

"By introducing fairly simple technologies we are addressing energy issues," he says. "We are addressing water pollution issues. We are addressing public health issues related to livestock and farming, and clearly reducing the exposure of local communities to pathogens. And at the same time, hopefully, we are reducing the pressure on local community forests for energy sources."

The urban outdoor environment is also under assault. The Clean Air Initiative in Sub-Saharan Africa has helped reduce air pollution from cars and trucks in large urban centers. "This is a partnership with a number of other organizations that combines research, training and actions on the ground and has shown absolutely phenomenal results," says Mr. Evans. He adds, "A good example is the elimination of lead in gasoline in much of Sub-Saharan Africa."

Mr. Evans says another bit of good news is a program to rid Sub-Sahara Africa of its stockpiles of obsolete pesticides, which are an increasing threat to health and the environment. "This is a big ticket item -- $250 million over 15 years -- but the public health benefits from that are extremely important," he says.

Globally the health of some 1.1 billion people is endangered because they lack access to safe water. One of the United Nations Millennium Development goals is to reduce that number by half by 2015. The World Bank calls for greater support from global partners to accomplish this mission.

The World Bank upped its environmental lending by more than 6% this year, compared with 2004. The increase -- to 11% of total lending -- reflects large loans for sustainable development, water, sanitation, irrigation, wastewater and solid waste management projects, says Warren Evans.

"I think that what happened last year is a good sign. It shows that we can incorporate key environmental initiatives in infrastructure development," he says. "So we need to build on those lessons and hopefully this time next year we can report even more progress on that."

World Bank official Warren Evans says from a development perspective our lives and economic wellbeing are dependent on the environment and its protection is critically linked to our future health.