Environmental Problems in Development countries

width="220"“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.

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