Poverty and environmental degradation Formidable challenges

The twin process of poverty and environmental degradation are among the most formidable challenges facing humanity today. The Food and Agriculture Organization has reported that the 10 percent of world population face starvation, 70 per cent of the population live in

inadequate sanitary conditions and 1.5 billion people still lack clean drinking water.

This vast majority of people live in the Third World and depend on agriculture for their livelihood. Moreover, the single most important input for agriculture is land and it is here that the situation is most critical. Nearly a thousand million people are either landless

or have so little land that cannot produce enough food to feed their households. Thus, limited access to land is undoubtedly a major cause of poverty

in the Third World.

Lack of resources is the first element of the local poverty trap. This is especially true in Nepal where the per capita land availability indicates a very tight situation as it has declined from 0.17 hectare in 1985 to 0.09 hectare by 2005. It is estimated that, given the present yields, an additional around 1million hectares of land should be brought under cultivation if the deficit in calorie intake is to be met by increasing the production of food grains. Similarly, grazing pressure is higher than the carrying capacity of the land as the shortage of fodder of the whole country has become as high as 33 per cent. The average hill family maintains four cattle and two buffaloes and requires about 3.5 hectares of uncultivated forest to sustain each hectare of land under cultivation. Fodder shortage translates directly into a lack of manure, declining soil fertility and declining crop yield. As a result Nepal’s agriculture is suffering from low and declining farm productivity.

Inequality in land ownership also has a dramatic effect in environmental degradation. It confines the poor to marginal areas, and intensifies population pressure there. Moreover, the geographical concentration of poverty on inhospitable land is driven partially as people move in, but more so by the heightened population growth rates that poverty itself brings. Land degradation is, thus, now becoming a global problem. But it is becoming more acute in Nepal where due to rapid population growth, peasants in the highland valleys are forced to expand their plots on to steep, forested hillsides where land is less productive and tenure least secure.

The heavy monsoon rainfall often triggers mass wasting and landslide. In this extremely vulnerable region, increased terrace farming often at the peak of the hill, overgrazing and over cutting of the forest have resulted in the problem of degradation and desertification. As a result, Nepal is losing 240 million cubic meters of soil which is well above the maximum limit of acceptable soil level loss. The

sediment load in the Nepalese rivers is alarming as river-beds in the Terai are rising 15 cm to 30 cm annually with excessive sedimentation.

It is said that in around 200 years the Kosi river has shifted 115 kilometers

westwards destroying land which had provided subsistence to 6.5 million people. Similarly, it is estimated

that about 10,000 sq. km. in Dolpa and Mustang districts are devoid of vegetation

indicating the desertification process.

In all this, the energy sources need focus as it has ramifications on the environment and thereby the status of poverty. The energy consumption rates to a considerable degree characterize the scale and efficiency of any society’s productive forces. While the energy commodities of the affluent are commercial, poor people largely depend on traditional energy.

Traditional forms of energy supply about 90 percent of energy consumption in Nepal; in which the share of fuel wood consumption is about 80 per cent. Because of this the national deficit in fuel is severe in Nepal and forests are declining at a very fast rate. The increasing cost of fodder and fuel-wood provisions are borne by family labor. As forests and pastures became degraded, fodder and fuel-wood must be fetched from increasing distance from less productive sources, using time that could otherwise be spent in income earning activity. Because of this, the working days in the field has shortened, family incomes have fallen, and diets have deteriorated. As a further result of forest depletion, dung is increasingly burnt in poor families as fuel instead of being returned as fertilizer to the soil. It is estimated that 8 million tons of dung are burnt each year.

Poverty should be placed on the environmental agenda as co-operator rather than competitor of those seeking economic and social development. It is also important to be aware of the costs of farmers on environmental measures and to be prepared to compensate them if necessary. In the meanwhile, it is legitimate to consider sustained production and welfare-oriented programs of support to the poor to protect the environment.

Prof. Dr. Upadhyay is associated with the Central Department of Environmental Science, TU