Urban poor groups use few non-renewable resources. Most of the houses in which poor urban people live (and often build for themselves) make widespread use of recycled or reclaimed materials, and little use of cement and other materials with a high-energy input. Such households have too few capital goods to represent much of a draw on the worlds finite reserves of metals and other non-renewable resources. Most low-income groups in urban areas rely on public transport (or they walk or bicycle) which means low average figures per capita for oil consumption. Low-income households, on average, have low levels of electricity consumption, not only because those who are connected use less but also because a high proportion of low-income households has no electricity supply. Thus, they are responsible for very little of the fossil fuel use that arises from oil, coal or gas-fuelled power stations (and most electricity is derived from such power stations).
Urban poor groups generally have low levels of use for renewable resources. Low-income urban dwellers generally have much lower levels of use for freshwater than middle- or upper-income groups although this is due more to inconvenient and/or expensive supplies than to need or choice. They occupy much less land per person than middle- and upper-income groups. They consume less food and generally have diets that are less energy and land intensive than higher-income groups. There are examples of low-income populations that do deplete renewable resources for instance, where low-income settlements have developed around reservoirs into which they dump their liquid (and perhaps solid) wastes or where low-income settlements have developed on slopes which, when cleared for housing, contribute to serious soil erosion (and the clogging of drains) but these are generally problems caused by the failure of urban authorities to ensure that they have access to other residential sites. In many low-income countries, a considerable proportion of the low-income urban population use fuelwood or charcoal for cooking (and, where needed, heating) and this may contribute to deforestation although claims that this is the case have often proved unfounded.
Urban poor groups generate much lower levels of waste per person than middle- or upper-income groups. The urban poor generally play a very positive role from an ecological perspective, as they are the main reclaimers, re-users and recyclers of wastes from industries, workshops and wealthier households. If it were possible to determine who consumed most of the goods whose fabrication involved the generation of most toxic or otherwise hazardous wastes, or of persistent chemicals whose rising concentration within the environment has worrying ecological and health implications, it is likely to be middle- and upper- income groups. There are examples of small-scale urban enterprises (including illegal or informal enterprises) which cause serious local environmental problems for instance, contaminating local water sources but their contribution to city-wide pollution problems relative to other groups is usually small. In addition, it is difficult to ascribe the pollution caused by small-scale enterprises to the urban poor when many such enterprises are owned by middle- or upper-income groups.
Low-income urban dwellers have, on average, very low levels of greenhouse gas emissions per person. Low-income groups usually generate much lower levels of carbon dioxide per person than middle- and upper-income groups, as their total use of fossil fuels, of electricity derived from fossil-fuelled power stations, and of goods or services with high fossil fuel inputs in their fabrication and use is so much lower. The only exception may be for some low-income households in urban areas where there is a need for space heating for parts of the year and where a proportion of the urban poor use biomass fuels or coal in inefficient stoves or fires. This may result in these households having above-average per capita contributions to greenhouse gas emissions (and also to urban air pollution) but these are exceptional cases.
Poverty reduction and environmental improvement
There are many complementarities between environmental improvement and poverty reduction in urban areas. The table below provides some examples of how environmental actions can help reduce poverty or the deprivations associated with it. Although most of the benefits arise from improved health, environmental actions can also contribute much to other aspects of poverty including:
- increased real incomes (for instance, through improved provision for water and sanitation, and lowering related expenditures for those previously reliant on water vendors and pay-as-you-use public toilets); and
- stronger asset bases (as homes and neighbourhoods are less at risk from disasters).
Summary Table: How environmental actions can help reduce
poverty or the deprivations associated with it
|Improved provision for water and sanitation
||Can bring a very large drop in health burdens from water-related infectious and parasitic diseases and some vector-borne diseases and also in premature death (especially for infants and young children). Safe disposal of excreta from the home and neighbourhood environment is a great health bonus.
|| For income-earners, increased income as a result of less time off work due to illness or to nursing sick family members, and less expenditure on medicines and on health care
Better nutrition (e.g. less food lost to diarrhoea and intestinal worms)
Less time and physical effort needed to collect water
Lower overall costs for those who, prior to improved supplies, had to rely on expensive water vendors
|Less crowded, better quality housing through supporting low-income groups to build, develop or buy less crowded, better quality housing
||Can bring a large drop in household accidents (often a major cause of serious injury and accidental death in poor quality, overcrowded housing) and remove the necessity for low-income groups to occupy land sites at high risk from floods, landslides or other hazards. Can also help reduce indoor air pollution.
|| Lower risk to low-income groups of losing their homes and other capital assets to accidental fires or disasters
Secure, stimulating indoor space an enormous benefit for childrens physical, mental and social development
|Improved provision for storm and surface water drainage
||Reduced flooding and reduced breeding possibilities for disease vectors bring major health benefits. Reduced risk of flooding means less risk of infection for the inhabitants, especially children (floods often spread excreta all over the site, especially where pit latrines are used)
||Lower risk of floods which can damage or destroy housing, which is often low-income households main capital asset and also where they store other assets
|Avoidance of hazardous land sites for settlements
||Reduces number of people at risk from floods, landslides or other hazards. The damage or destruction of housing and other assets from, for instance, floods or landslides can be the shock which pushes low-income households into absolute poverty
||Sites within cities that may be hazardous for settlements are often well suited to parks or wildlife reserves and may also be well suited to helping in flood protection and groundwater recharge
|Promotion of cleaner household fuels
||Reductions in respiratory and other health problems through reduced indoor and outdoor air pollution
||Reduced contribution of household stoves to city air pollution
|Improved provision for solid waste management
||Removes garbage from open sites and ditches in and around settlements. Reduces risk of many animal and insect disease vectors and stops garbage blocking drains
||Reduces time and physical effort for previously unserved households. Considerable employment opportunities in well managed solid waste collection system where recycling, reuse and reclamation are promoted
|Support for community action to improve local environment
||If well managed, many low-cost ways to reduce environmental hazards and improve environmental quality in informal settlements
||Employment creation; minimum incomes help households avoid poverty. Can reduce sense of social exclusion
|Support for more participatory plans
||Low-income groups with more possibilities of influencing city authorities priorities on environmental policy and investment
||Precedents set in participatory Local Agenda 21s and other action plans can lead to low-income groups having greater influence in other sectors
|Improved public transport
||Cheap, good quality public transport keeps down time and money costs for income-earners in low-income groups getting to and from work; also enhances access to services
||Can reduce air pollution and its health impacts. Can reduce the disadvantages of living in peripheral locations and help keep down house prices