Poor countries tend to have the worst environmental problems
SURVEY: DEVELOPMENT AND THE ENVIRONMENT
Mar 19th 1998
From The Economist print edition
Poor countries have the world's worst environmental problems. They cannot afford to put up with them, argues Daniel Litvin
"THE centralisation of population in great cities exercises of itself an unfavourable influence," wrote Friedrich Engels in 1844. "All putrefying vegetable and animal substances give off gases decidedly injurious to health, and if these gases have no free way of escape, they inevitably poison the atmosphere [The poor] are obliged to throw all offal and garbage, all dirty water, often all disgusting drainage and excrement into the streets, being without other means of disposing of them; they are thus compelled to infect the region of their own dwelling."
Much of Engels's writing seems irrelevant today, but his description of working-class life in 19th-century London paints an uncannily accurate picture of slum life in developing countries at the end of the 20th century. In the Klong Toey district of Bangkok, the stench from the rotting rubbish and fetid water that collect between the shacks is overpowering. In the north of Mexico city, near Santa Fe, hovels cling to the sides of a steep valley which most days is choked with smog, and streams of untreated sewage run down to the river below. In the Moroccan town of Marrakesh, the smell of rotting cattle flesh surrounds tanneries for miles around.
Conventional wisdom has it that concern for the environment is a luxury only the rich world can afford; that only people whose basic needs for food and shelter have been met (as well as, perhaps, some not-so-basic ones for things like cars and televisions) can start worrying about the health of the planet. This survey will argue that developing countries, too, should be thinking about the environment. True, in the rich countries a strong environmental movement did not emerge until long after they had become industrialised, a stage that many developing countries have yet to reach. And true, many of the developed world's environmental concerns have little to do with immediate threats to its inhabitants’ well-being. People worry about whether carbon-dioxide emissions might lead to a warmer climate next century, or whether genetically engineered crops might have unforeseen consequences for the ecosystem. That is why, when rich-world environmentalists campaign against pollution in poor countries, they are often accused of naivety. Such countries, the critics say, have more pressing concerns, such as getting their people out of poverty.
But the environmental problems that developing countries should worry about are different from those that western pundits have fashionable arguments over. They are not about potential problems in the next century, but about indisputable harm being caused today by, above all, contaminated water and polluted air. The survey will argue that, contrary to conventional wisdom, solving such problems need not hurt economic growth; indeed dealing with them now will generally be cheaper than leaving them to cause further harm.
In most developing countries pollution seems to be getting worse, not better. Most big cities in Latin America, for example, are suffering rising levels of air pollution. Populations in poor countries are growing so fast that improvements in water supply have failed to keep up with the number of extra people. Worldwide, about a billion people still have no access to clean water, and water contaminated by sewage is estimated to kill some 2m children every year. Throughout Latin America, Asia and Africa, forests are disappearing, causing not just long-term concern about climate change but also immediate economic damage. Forest fires in Indonesia last year produced a huge blanket of smog that enveloped much of South-East Asia and kept the tourists away. It could happen again, and probably will.
Recent research suggests that pollution in developing countries is far more than a minor irritation: it imposes a heavy economic cost. A World Bank study last year put the cost of air and water pollution in China at $54 billion a year, equivalent to an astonishing 8% of the country's GDP. Another study estimated the health costs of air pollution in Jakarta and Bangkok in the early 1990s at around 10% of these cities’ income. These are no more than educated guesses, but whichever way the sums are done, the cost is not negligible.
The growth in environmental problems in developing countries has been matched by a rise in local anxiety about them. In recent years hundreds of environmental lobby groups have sprung up in Latin America and Asia. Some of these are offshoots of rich-world groups such as Greenpeace, which now has offices in 11 developing countries. But many of the new groups are home-grown, drawing support from people increasingly worried about the effect of pollution on their health.
In Bolivia, Mexico and Brazil, green activists have recently entered government. Bangkok's people, frustrated by the city's notorious congestion and pollution, have elected a governor with strong green credentials, Bichit Ratanakorn, who has threatened to "name and shame" firms that flout pollution rules. He is urging other Asian cities at an earlier stage of industrialisation "not [to] follow in our footsteps".
From Brazil to China, governments are passing increasingly tough environmental regulations, many of them modelled on green standards in Europe and North America. Often this is an empty gesture: many countries are unwilling or unable to enforce green regulations. Brazilian politicians may have felt a warm glow in January when they passed a law against "environmental crimes", but Brazil already has legislation prohibiting Amazon landowners from deforesting more than 20% of their land. That has done nothing to stop many of them cutting down all their trees.
There are environmental lessons to be learnt from the rich countries, but these do not involve blindly copying everything they do. In most of the OECD countries, emissions of lead, carbon monoxide and sulphur dioxide have been falling steadily since 1980. Investment in waste water treatment has helped to clean up rivers and lakes. Even forest cover has increased a little over the past few decades. But a similar effect might have been achieved at lower cost. In most rich countries, spending on pollution control amounts to around 1-2% of GDP. Governments and regulators have often forced particular technologies on firms rather than allowing them to find the cheapest way to reduce their emissions. Many emissions standards have been imposed at a late stage of industrial development, when firms had already invested heavily in processes that caused pollution. Air and water standards are still being tightened up, and at ever greater cost: Europe's water utilities, for example, estimate they will need to invest around 140 billion ecus ($152 billion) by 2005 to comply with EU regulations on sewage treatment. Many would argue that the tiny health benefits do not justify this expenditure even in the rich EU countries, and nobody seriously suggests that the developing countries should aim this high.
But most developing countries are nowhere near the point of diminishing returns from investment in pollution controls. Another recent World Bank study found that across a range of Asian countries, including Thailand, Indonesia and China, the cost of a simple set of environmental measures—such as phasing out lead in petrol and investing in clean water supplies—would be much lower than the value of the benefits to human health.
If the problems can be fixed so cheaply, why are governments so slow to get on with it? Start by considering the three trends most widely blamed for causing environmental problems—population growth, urbanisation and industrialisation.
The world's population is increasing by around 85m every year—the equivalent of, say, another Mexico. The pace of growth has come down a little since the 1960s, but according to United Nations projections it remains fast enough to push the world's population above 9 billion by 2050, from around 6 billion today (see chart 1). Most of that growth will be in developing countries. The population explosion of the past few decades has been due to a happy trend: a dramatic rise in life expectancy, thanks in part to the spread of modern medicines and better sanitation. But, say environmentalists, the world's supply of natural resources is finite, and in some regions particular resources are already scarce (water in the Middle East, certain species of fish in the North Atlantic). How can these resources be made to go round an extra 3 billion people?
Increasing urbanisation is another environmental worry. The historic movement from country to town in rich countries is now being echoed in poor countries, but on a much bigger scale (see chart 2). The UN expects that between 1990 and 2025 the number of people living in urban areas will double to more than 5 billion, and that 90% of that growth will be in developing countries. In Africa and Asia more than half the population still lives in the countryside, compared with only a fifth in Europe and North America.
Country-dwellers in developing countries are moving to cities for the same sorts of reasons as in the rich countries in the 19th century: they are pushed by a scarcity of farm jobs, and they are pulled by the hope of better jobs and a better life. Governments in many developing countries have accelerated this process by pursuing economic policies that discriminate against agriculture: until recently, for example, many governments kept food prices artificially low. The reason why urbanisation is likely to harm the local environment is simply that people are much more densely crowded together. Burn a tyre in the countryside, and no one may worry about it; but in the city it will cause a great many coughs and splutters.
Industrialisation, too, is an obvious cause of environmental problems. Today's rich countries moved first from agriculture to manufacturing industries which use resources intensively, and later to services and less polluting types of manufacturing. Many developing countries are now undergoing that first transition at the same time as succumbing to a temptation not available in the 19th century: motor vehicles.
In rich countries, there are typically around 40 cars per 100 people; in Latin America the figure is about seven, in China two. But the developing countries are catching up: the number of vehicles registered in China has been growing by 12-14% a year for the past 20 years. The smog now hanging above many cities in Latin America and Asia is a complex cocktail of pollutants that include car exhaust fumes as well as emissions from coal-burning and smoke from factories.
Industrialisation, urbanisation and population growth all help to explain the developing world's growing environmental problems, but they are not the only reasons. Poverty itself makes things worse. And the biggest culprit of all is the failure of governments and institutions to pursue sensible policies. Water pollution—the subject of the next article—is a case in point.
Source: The Economist
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