Environment as a dimension of poverty

The SDGs have focused global attention on the interdependence of human and environmental wellbeing. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 25 September 2015, is a global commitment to ‘end poverty and hunger, in all their forms and dimensions, and to ensure that all human beings can fulfil their potential in dignity and equality and in a healthy environment’. The resolution goes on to commit to ‘protect the planet from degradation, including through sustainable consumption and production, sustainably managing its natural resources and taking urgent action on climate change, so that it can support the needs of the present and future generations’.

While the right to a safe and healthy environment is not explicitly enshrined in key human rights treaties, the link between environmental issues and human rights is increasingly recognised, including rights to life, health, an adequate standard of living, and water (Boyle and Anderson, 1996). In March 2012, the United Nations Human Rights Council established a mandate on human rights and the environment and established the role of Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment, an independent expert tasked with monitoring and reporting to the United Nations Secretary-General. Acknowledgement of the link between human development and human wellbeing and a clean and safe environment is now recognised at the global level. It is also increasingly recognised by nations, with more than 100 countries having constitutional recognition of the right of their citizens to a healthy environment (UN Environment, 2019). 

What the research reveals about environmental wellbeing

The existence of a safe, healthy and ecologically balanced environment is essential to human wellbeing. Conversely, a polluted environment reduces people’s quality of life and presents risks to health and safety. Sources of environmental pollution include rubbish or hazardous waste, agricultural or industrial chemicals, open drains with sewage, polluted air or water (places where insects breed), and high levels of noise. Highly polluted environments may have been associated with disease and epidemiological outbreaks (Kusiak, 2018; Dembek et al., 2018; Galgallo et al., 2018). The deleterious consequences associated with unhealthy and unsafe environments tend to impact disproportionately on poor and marginalised populations (Landrigan et al., 2018; Owusu and Nursey-Bray, 2019), and thus have fundamentally important implications for assessing and alleviating poverty. Moreover, the reliance of poor people, particularly in rural areas, on food or medicinal products harvested from their environment increases their vulnerability to environmental degradation (Hickey et al., 2016; Bakkegaard et al., 2017).

Although the environment, in the context discussed above, is generally understood as the natural environment, the built environment also has important implications for human wellbeing and the experience of multidimensional poverty. The complex relationships between poverty, the natural environment, the built environment, and human safety are captured in SDG 11, which aims to ‘make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable’. Significantly, Satterthwaite (2003: 73) has argued that while ‘there is little evidence of urban poverty being a significant contributor to environmental degradation [there is] strong evidence that urban environmental hazards are major contributors to urban poverty’.

Among the hazards and risks to which people living in poverty are exposed is fear of crime and fear for personal safety (Azman et al., 2018). While evidence is limited, studies undertaken in both the global South and the global North indicate that poor people are more fearful than the general population (see Pantazis, 2000). An important study undertaken in the United Kingdom in the 1990s found that people living in households defined as ‘multiply deprived’ were almost three times as likely to feel unsafe in their local neighbourhood as people in better off households. Thus, deeper understanding of poverty–environment linkages, particularly in urban areas, is essential, with environment understood as both the natural and the built environment.

What the IMMP reveals about the environment

The participatory research on which the IMMP is based identified a range of environmental hazards to which poor people are exposed, including inadequate waste management, and polluted air, water and soil. Participants also spoke of the ways in which people living in poverty are reliant on natural resources. When those resources are depleted or unavailable, vulnerability – and sometimes poverty – were described as being increased.

People involved in the participatory research also described the ways in which poverty and personal safety are linked, with inadequate street lighting and other infrastructure increasing people’s sense of insecurity. While these issues may impact on one’s sense of safety regardless of whether they are ‘poor’ or not, the participatory research indicated that the most deprived people are more likely to live in areas where there is little investment in public infrastructure and safety and do not have the resources required to improve the safety of their environment.

What the IMMP Environment dimension measures

The environment dimension of the IMMP consists of three themes: exposure to environmental problems, natural resource utilisation and crime threats. The data for the first theme were collected in the household survey, and the two latter themes are constructed and scored using information collected at the individual level.

Theme 1: Exposure to environmental problems

The first theme on exposure to environmental problems has one indicator which is developed using eight variables asked about in the household survey. The assumption is that each individual in a household is affected by these eight variables in the same way. Thus the survey asks about the household's exposure to: rubbish/waste disposal site; agricultural/industrial chemicals; open drains with sewage; air pollution; water pollution; places where disease-carrying insects breed; noise pollution; and other significant environmental hazards  

Theme 2: Natural resource utilisation

The second theme relates to natural resource utilisation, and is constructed from two indicators: natural resource utilisation and biomass fuel utilisation.

The first indicator comprises two variables regarding the utilisation of non-cultivated natural resources, and whether the availability of these resources is enough to meet needs.

The second indicator considers two variables which ask about responsibility for collection of biomass fuel, and whether the availability of biomass fuel is sufficient to meet needs.

Theme 3: Crime threats

The third theme considers crime threats and is constructed from a single indicator with two variables that ask about the respondent’s feeling of safety when at home and feeling of safety while walking alone in their neighbourhood.


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