5 ways climate change affects people living in poverty

by | Jun 9, 2017

Climate change is currently at the forefront of many political and environmental debates in the West, but for many poorer regions, particularly in Africa and South Asia, the effects of climate change are a daily reality.

Although the earth’s climate has been changing since its formation, temperatures have been rising rapidly since the industrial revolution. By burning fossil fuels, humans increase emissions (greenhouse gasses that are trapped in earth’s atmosphere) like carbon dioxide and methane. These emissions trap energy in the atmosphere and increase the temperature of the earth. Temperatures have risen about 1.4 degrees fahrenheit in the last century.

Climate change affects regions across the globe, however, people living in poverty are more affected despite the fact that the 50 least developed countries in the world contribute only 1 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. Climate change can bring about disastrous weather events, of which 99 percent of total fatalities and 90 percent of all economic losses occur in less developed countries.

Because of their already vulnerable state, poor communities are particularly at risk of feeling the effects of climate change. Here are five ways climate change is impacting the poor.

1. Natural disasters sink poor communities further into poverty

Studies suggest that natural disasters are on the rise, as evidenced by the fact that extreme weather events between 2000 and 2009 increased three-fold over the years between 1980 and 1989.

Floods, tsunamis, droughts and other natural disasters can destroy communities with already fragile infrastructure. They often lack safe housing, live in overcrowded cities or very rural villages, and have little access to health and other services. As a result, communities can suffer widespread disease, shortages in food, water and basic necessities. For example, the Philippines experienced a devastating Typhoon in 2013 that affected fourteen million people. Many communities hit by the Typhoon were already burdened by poor infrastructure, and didn’t have the capacity to deal with such a catastrophic event, pushing families deeper into poverty.

Regions experiencing poverty are often unable to recover from natural disasters without massive financial and logistical support. According to a report by Oxfam in 2009, when a disaster strikes a high-income country 23 people die on average, while 1,052 die on average in the least-developed countries.

2. Greater health risks

Human activities like driving cars and producing coal introduce carbon dioxide and other toxic gases that change the normal composition of the air we breathe. This reduction in air quality reduces the amount of oxygenation in the respiratory system, affecting the brain and the heart, which can lead to cardiovascular and respiratory diseasesThe vast majority of people at risk are in urban areas in low and middle income countries. Children in less developed countries experience the greatest health risks.

Another health-related impact of climate change is access to clean water. Shrinking sources of fresh water, droughts, changes to the water cycle, and few resources for purifying water, all cause less access to clean water and sanitation. This impacts health, especially for children, by increasing instances of waterborne diseases, malnutrition, and impaired developmental growth.

3. Flooding and coastal erosion

Coastal flooding is becoming more prevalent because of rising sea levels. Over half of the world’s population is located within about 40 miles of the sea. When sea levels rise, coastal erosion and increased flooding occurs, forcing people to move and impacting economies dependent on climate-sensitive resources, such as agriculture.

Flooding can also contaminate water sources, increasing the transmission of water-borne diseases, such as Typhoid and and Cholera. Instances of Malaria can increase with flooding because standing water acts as breeding grounds for mosquitos.

4. Food security

Changing temperatures and rain patterns, particularly droughts, have detrimental effects on farmers and can cause food insecurity. Unfavorable weather can lower crop yields and decimate livestock. This means that income goes down for farmers and their families, sending people further into poverty. It can also cause massive food shortages, increasing food prices, and even lead to famine. 

5. Forced migration

In the aftermath of natural disasters, droughts, famine, and other climate change issues, the poor are often faced with the tough choice of either migrating to places with better living conditions, or staying in their home and risking further uncertainty and loss.

Somalia, for example, suffered a famine in the 1980s. The famine led to conflicts over resources, which sent it into civil war in 1991. Amid these turbulent times, droughts also became more frequent amounting to the deaths of 250,000 people and a mass migration of almost a million from Somalia to nearby countries in 2011.

Addressing the effects of climate change on the poor

One Day’s Wages works to address the effects of climate change on the poor through projects and partnerships. This year we partnered with World Relief to provide emergency food and and garden training to families in Malawi, a country which is currently suffering a massive food shortage due to drought. We also recently partnered with H2O for All in Ghana, to provide access to safe water through a solar-powered rainwater harvesting system. The solar-powered system was both environmentally sustainable and cost effective.

The innovative ways that people and organizations are addressing the effects of climate change on the poor is encouraging, but these projects are not enough.

According to NASA, 2016 was the hottest year globally on record. If current trends continue, the effects of climate change could push an additional 100 million individuals into poverty by 2030. To combat these global effects, it’s going to take all of us. Real change for the most vulnerable will only come with global participation: country-to-country, city-to-city, person-to-person. At One Day’s Wages, our goal is to be a part of the solution by taking small steps to make an impact on poor communities.

You can contribute to One Day’s Wages’ work to combat the effects of climate change on the poor by giving to any of our issue funds, or start your own campaign.


Jessina Ruff is a blog contributor at One Day’s Wages and a student at Seattle Pacific University.

Photos curtesy of World Relief, Medical Teams International, and Eden.

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