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Environmental Degradation In Rural Bangladesh Environmental Sciences Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Environmental Sciences
Wordcount: 2472 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Today, as people in developed countries generally enjoy a high standard of living, at the other end of the spectrum, the poor in developing countries are struggling to make ends meet. 22% of the population in developing countries live on less than $1.25 daily and 75% of these people live in rural areas (The World Bank, 2012). This group of rural poor are the greatest victims of environment degradation. In this essay, by looking at the case study of Bangladesh, we will get a deeper insight into why the poor puts great pressure on the environment. In turn, we will uncover why environmental degradation affects the poor most severely resulting in the reinforcement of environmental degradation. Thereafter, we will explore some possible measures to help developing counties like Bangladesh to break out from the vicious cycle of poverty and environmental degradation.

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Environmental consequences of poverty

Although majority of researchers have attributed poverty as a key factor for causing environmental degradation, we have to note that other factors such as profit motives, and institutional failures are also responsible for environmental degradation. Nevertheless unlike other factors, poverty and environmental degradation shares a unique relationship that causes them to reinforce each other in a vicious cycle. We would first look at how poverty causes environmental degradation.

In Bangladesh more than 40% of the population lives below the international poverty line and are vulnerable to food insecurity and natural disaster (Aid Effectiveness, 2009). 85% belong to the rural poor (Drakenberg, 2006). Bangladesh faces a series of environmental problems including deforestation, land degradation, air pollution, water shortage and contamination, as well as loss of biodiversity. The poor play a vital role in influencing these aspects of environmental degradation.

Firstly, poverty leads to deforestation. The existing natural forests in Bangladesh are decreasing at a rate varying from 2.1% /year to 3.3% /year (Rahman, 2012). This is due to exploitation of forest resources for commercial logging, fuel wood collection as well as agricultural land expansion. Commercial logging provides a viable income for the poor as the timber logs could be sold for cash. This monetary benefit could encourage more trees to be felled resulting in unsustainable deforestation. Bangladesh has a high fertility rate, due to desire for more children to help in the fields and for social support in old age. The growing population requires more trees would have to be felled to provide fuel for their cooking needs. There will also be a need to increase food production for the larger population causing large tracts of forest to be cleared and converted into agricultural land for growing of crops. Deforestation, with loss of forest cover is responsible for soil erosion and loss of fertile top soil decreases agricultural productivity.

Secondly, poverty contributes to land degradation. Land degradation arises due to soil exhaustion, salinization and desertification. Similarly, due to population growth with poverty, multiple cropping with a shorter fallow period was done to increase food supply. To increase land productivity, farmers use fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides heavily. These methods of intensive land use may be effective in increasing agricultural output in the short term. However in the long run the soil would gradually lose its nutrients, land is degraded and desertification creeps in. Though irrigation is helpful in ensuring stable water supply for crops all year round, mismanaged irrigation due to lack of knowledge of rural farmers could result in reverse osmosis and accumulation of salt (Duraiappah, 1996). This causes a backlash and soil productivity drops.

Thirdly, poverty affects water resource. Irrigation reduces ground water which may result in a water shortage if there is insufficient water for the large rural population. In the north-western part of Bangladesh, aquifer level of ground water was lowered when extraction of ground water for irrigation is not adequately recharged and coupled with high rate of evaporation (Mahbuba Nasreen, 2006). Furthermore, Bangladesh faces problem of water contamination due to fertilizers and pesticide run-off from the farmlands. In 2002, more than the 65% of the country’s population were at risk of arsenic poisoning. 61 of the 64 districts had arsenic levels which were found to be above the national accepted standard of 0.05 mg/litre (Mahbuba Nasreen, 2006).

Lastly, poverty contributes to air pollution. The poor depend on biomass and firewood for fuel. The burning of these fuels degrades the air quality and can cause respiratory problems. Although there are substitute fuels which are less harmful to the environment, the poor have yet to gain access to them and may not be able to afford.

Moreover, due to a lack of education, the rural poor may not have the knowledge on how to protect their living environment. They extract more resources from the forest to meet the needs of the growing population, not taking into consideration the externality cost of resource loss since access to the forest is free and unrestricted. To them, the immediate needs are of priority and they don’t tend to plan far for the future due to the uncertainties of life. As a result, the poor have no qualms about the unsustainable land use practices and lack vision for long-term optimal resource management. This mindset is detrimental to the long term sustainability of environmental resources and unplanned use of resources is likely to result in environment degradation. The mindset of the poor has led to loss of biodiversity where flora and fauna as well as wetlands are overexploitation. In Bangladesh, inland and coastal capture fisheries have declined and about 30% of inland fish species have become endangered (Drakenberg, 2006).

Environmental degradation reinforce poverty

Firstly, the rural poor are most vulnerable to environmental degradation because they rely heavily on the fragile natural resources for their daily living. 55% of rural women work as farmers in the field, and they rely on the environment for fuel wood, food and water. Desertification is detrimental to the poor as it affects their supply of basic needs from forest resources. Over extraction of water for irrigation leads to lowering of ground water level and water becomes salinized, causing a severe shortage of drinking water.In Bangladesh, rural women are responsible for collecting fuel wood, water and food for family consumption from forest. Deforestation and water shortage causes shrink in food and water availability and women have to work harder and travel further to search for resources. This enduring task is demanding on their health and scarcity of food could lead to malnutrition (Jahan, 2008). The poor being reliant on natural resources for basic needs and agricultural land for food, is offered hardly any food security due to the fragile nature of the natural environment. When their agricultural land becomes less fertile due unattainable land use practices, the family’s income is drastically reduced; the poor remain in their vicious cycle of poverty and their basic needs and nutrition could be compromised.

Likewise near the coastal areas, the poor rely on wetlands for capture fishery as their main source of food and income. With the destruction of wetlands for conversion to shrimp cultivation area, it drastically reduces the vulnerable food supply of the poor and increased salinity over coastal land endangers their health.

Secondly, environmental degradation affects the poor most severely as they are the group that continues to live in places facing land degradation as these polluted areas are cheaper to live in. Being unable to afford to move to a better land, the poor are exposed to Arsenic pollution from contaminated water sources (Mahbuba Nasreen, 2006). The World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that, 37 million people in developing countries suffer chronic poisoning due to exposure to toxic pesticides from working in fields that use chemical fertilizers and pesticides extensively (Jahan, 2008). The poor also have to make do with cheaper source of fuel for cooking and heating. Burning fuel wood and dung causes respiratory infections affecting women and children, causing child mortality.

Vicious cycle of poverty and environment degradation

Source: Poverty and environment, 2000, Figure 9.2 Vicious Cycle of Poverty and Environment Degradation in Developing Countries, pp. 201.

As seen in the context of Bangladesh, farmers hard-pressed by population growth and increasing poverty overexploit natural resources and extend cropping onto fragile marginal lands which results in a loss of sustainability and environmental degradation. Decline in agricultural productivity on degraded lands then triggers poverty which in turn forced many farmers to continue degrading their land further to extract subsistence output (Duraiappah, 1996). Overtime, this phenomenon creates the ‘vicious circle’ between poverty and environmental degradation as seen in the diagram above.

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Urbanisation further aggregate environmental degradation and worsen life of the rural poor. Government may allocate more funds to support the growing industry of engineering, electronics and information technology which would generate more income for the economy (United Nations ESCAP, 2010). Conversely, the agriculture sector would receive less funds and manpower is reduced with young men moving to work in urban areas. This leaves behind the elderly and women to manage the marginal agricultural lands. Urbanisation causes air pollution from vehicular and industrial emissions, loss of biodiversity from human interference to natural habitats and deforestation which contributes to global warming. The poor at the receiving end become victims to these problems.

In many developing countries, governments generally do not address the sustainability issues if there is little public pressure and they find no political rewards in enhancing environmental quality. Nevertheless for developing countries to achieve environmental sustainability, support from the government is definitely essential. As highlighted, the poor are the biggest victims of environmental degradation; conversely poverty can exacerbate ecological problems. To ensure long term environmental sustainability, possible measures needs to target poverty alleviation and environmental management.

Possible measures to achieve sustainable development

Source: National sustainable development strategy, 2008, Figure 3.1 schematic representation of the vision, strategic priority areas and cross-cutting areas, pp. 6.

In 2008, Bangladesh’s government came out with a national sustainable development strategy (NSDS) to guide the country towards alleviating poverty and environmental problems. As shown in the table above, the strategy aims to achieve sustainable development by ensuring sustainable economic growth, agricultural and rural development, social security and environment management (DOE, 2008).

Having sustainable economic growth means to accelerate growth while ensuring environmental sustainability. Bangladesh strives to ensure economic growth with higher private investment, increased inflow of FDIs and effective trade policies (DOE, 2008). It includes the agricultural sectors in the economic progress by providing them with electricity, roads, and telecommunications to improve connectivity with urban areas. One possible direction for sustainable economic growth is to promote investment in renewable energy sources such as solar energy, wind energy and hydroelectricity. Bangladesh has abundant sunlight year round, wind and high energy waves; this can generate profits and reduce air pollution from fuel burning (M. S. Islam, 2011).

Agricultural and rural development measures ensure food security for the growing population without causing environment degradation. Crop productivity can be increase with agriculture diversification and improved technologies. To reduce reliance on irrigation and lower risk of salinization, storage of surface water is enhanced and rainwater harnessed. To prevent deletion of marine fisheries resource, fishing is regulated avoid over exploitation. To enhance forest biodiversity, forest protected area could be extended and rural folks could be educated with knowledge on sustainable resource use (DOE, 2008).

Social security is achieved with sanitation, shelter and empowerment through education. It involves provision of housing facilities, clean drinking water, electricity, medical services and ensuring food security for all (DOE, 2008). Additionally, primary and secondary education is made available and compulsory for all, enabling empowerment of the poor.

Environment management protects the environment and its resources. To manage water shortage and contamination, water conservation is encouraged and pollution sources are identified and managed. Loss of biodiversity is addressed by monitoring unsustainable consumption of biological resources. Also, scientific and traditional knowledge are to be integrated to effectively conserve the ecosystem. Most importantly, environmental sustainability considerations need to be integrated in policies concerning forest, water, land, agriculture, industry and energy (DOE, 2008).


As discussed, poverty and environmental degradation has close interlinks and reinforce each other. Poverty is a key contributing factor to various environmental problems of deforestation, land degradation, air and water pollution, and loss of biodiversity. Consequently, environmental degradation has the greatest impact on the poor, causing them to be ever more vulnerable and having to further degrade the environment to meet their basic needs and ensure survival. To achieve sustainable development in developing countries like Bangladesh, possible measures would have to target both poverty alleviation and environmental sustainability. Likewise these measures would work best if backed by strong government support and properly planed and organized. Bangladesh’s elaborated NSDS shows a strong commitment to solve environmental issues and ensure a better standard of living for current and future generation. Nevertheless, it is still too early to determine the effectiveness of the strategies; time will tell if Bangladesh is able to break free from the vicious cycle of poverty and environmental degradation.


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