How climate change impacts poverty

Updated Jun 21, 2021
Climate change is quickly becoming climate crisis. Between 2030 and 2050, climate change is expected to cause approximately 250,000 extra deaths per year. That’s from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea and heat stress alone, says the World Health Organization.

Around the world, smog levels are making it harder to breathe. Food is becoming scarcer and less nutritious. Rising rivers and raging wildfires make news headlines as they destroy neighbourhoods rooted for generations. In the United States alone, climate change doubled the number of large forest fires between 1984 and 2015.

But climate change doesn’t affect everyone to the same degree. Within Canada and around the world, the poorest people are often most drastically impacted. Wealthier nations and families have more power to shield themselves from the impacts of climate change:
  • Money pays for air conditioning and cottages where air is fresher.
  • Higher incomes allow people to live in safe places, away from swelling rivers and tinder-dry wooded areas.
  • Privilege fills grocery carts, even as food prices soar.
  • Wealthier federal budgets can compensate their citizens when climate change harms livelihoods.
Impoverished families in developing countries are often the least to blame for man-made climate change. Yet they typically bear the worst of the impact.

Climate change in developing countries

Without urgent action, climate change could push an additional 100 million people into poverty, says the World Bank.

Imagine being a farmer, pastoralist or fisher in a low-income country. You’re likely already struggling to provide for your family. You have no insurance, no savings to speak of and no social safety net. Only 1 in 5 of the poorest people in low-income countries is covered by social safety net programs, according to the World Bank.

Your well-being may be linked directly to land and water. Your collateral is your boat, your livestock or your next harvest. And your children’s well-being is completely dependent on making a good harvest, selling healthy livestock or hauling in good catches of fish.

A young child looks toward camera looking solemn, beside a table with a few shellfish.
A child displays a small catch at market, on the Solomon Islands. According to the elders, there are no big fish anymore. Fishers spent all night at work and catch very little. The water is warmer, the coral is bleaching and the tidal patterns have changed. Most fish have gone elsewhere. Photo: Klever Gaspar

Now, factor in the impacts of climate change. Remove predictability from local rain patterns. Bring on the drought. Send in extreme weather phenomena: wildfires, hurricanes and tornadoes brought about by climate change.

Such threats to life and livelihood are becoming more common, increasingly intense and longer lasting than anyone remembers.

Women in Ethiopia wearing bright headscarves stand in line for cash assistance. They are holding up identification cards.
In a region of Ethiopia weakened by severe drought, mothers line up to receive their cash distribution from World Vision. They will use the funds to buy food and to buy food and other essentials for their families. Photo: Fitalew Bahiru

The rising impact on people

It took the world a while to wake up to the devastation of climate change. In the 1990s, most of our focus was on melting polar ice caps and its effect on species like polar bears. There is no question these issues are critically important and deserve our ongoing attention.

But in the early 2000s, a new field of climate-science research emerged. It explored the human impact of extreme weather such as floods, heatwaves, droughts and storms. Climate change, it became increasingly clear, is affecting not just landscapes – but world poverty.

In 2010, the United Nations declared that “climate change is inextricably linked to poverty and hunger.” Seventy-five per cent of the world’s poor living in rural areas count on natural resources such as forests, lakes and oceans for their livelihoods, the organization noted. And climate change is playing havoc with those resources.

Here’s how climate change is impacting families and communities in some of the world’s poorest countries today:
  • Prolonged droughts devastate food supplies and dry up water sources.
  • Withered crops and starving animals destroy families’ livelihoods.
  • Hurricanes, floods and landslides flatten or sweep away people’s homes.
  • Strife can occur within communities, as families compete for available arable land.
  • Families become separated, as relatives relocate to search for work.

A car drives down a dusty road in a dry region of Afghanistan
A devastating drought in western Afghanistan has pushed more than six million people to the brink and hundreds of thousands of people have been forced to abandon their homes to live in sprawling makeshift camps near cities in a desperate bid to feed their families. Photo: Brett Tarver

The impact of climate change on children

According to the International Labour Organization, children are most vulnerable to the effects of climate change, natural disasters and extreme weather phenomena. And the impact of climate change can be particularly harsh for children in low-income countries. When communities begin at a disadvantage, the ravages of climate change are more extreme for the children living there.

Consider child health. In developing countries, the health of children is already substantially worse than in countries like Canada. Children in developing countries are 10 times more likely to die before the age of five than children in developed countries.

Now factor in the growing effects of climate change like hotter days, water shortages, an increase in infectious illnesses, flooding and natural disasters and air pollution.

As climate change worsens, so too does its effect on children’s lives. For example: Children’s education can be affected by the impacts of climate change. Education is one of the best ways to alleviate poverty and reduce vulnerability to climate change and natural disasters. Yet this study from the University of Maryland indicates that climate change can threaten schooling. The extreme heat and precipitation from climate change in tropical countries could affect children’s ability to finish high school.

A teenage boy stands in a dry-looking environment, with a wooden tool after one arm.
In Angola, 16-year-old Ndjiole quit school to save his family’s livelihood. For six months, he’s been wandering in the bush with the family’s cattle, searching for water and vegetation to keep them alive. Photo: Antonio Matimbe

World Vision workers met this sixteen-year-old boy, Ndjiole, at a UN water point for animals. The boy had dropped out of school to care for his family’s cattle. Ndjiole left home six months ago. He sleeps in the bush with only the cattle for company. There’s no shelter. He eats what he can find along the way. The environment is hostile and he misses the comfort of a loving home.

Climate change is a contributing factor for the 152 million children under the age of 18 working around the world, says the International Labour Organization. And the loss of education is only one aspect of the tragedy.

Children can be hurt, maimed or even killed doing whatever work is available in a hunger crisis. Lack of protection outside of school – and the desperate need to work – can leave children vulnerable to exploitation and trafficking. When families migrate in search of work, children are even more vulnerable, outside the protection of their communities.

Climate change is especially brutal for girls. As communities grow increasingly destitute, parents may choose to arrange a child marriage for their daughter. The number of girls married in childhood currently stands at 12 million per year. Climate change is among the factors threatening to increase those numbers.

Unless progress is made to reverse the trend, more than 120 million additional girls will marry before age 18 by 2030, says UNICEF.

A teenage girl stands and waits outside her hut. She is wearing a white t-shirt and black skirt. Her face is not visible in the photo.
In Angola, girls as young as 12 are prostituting themselves to help keep their families alive during the worst drought in decades. Food prices have soared. This 15-year-old girl is struggling to feed herself, her mother and her grandmother. Photo: Brianna Piazza

In some tragic cases, climate change contributes to situations forcing girls to sell sex to stay alive. World Vision has reported that girls in southern Africa as young as 12 are selling sex to survive the hunger crisis. The cost is roughly the same as a loaf of bread.

“The United Nations says a record 45 million people in southern Africa face hunger amid a ‘silent catastrophe’,” reported the Thomson Reuters Foundation. The catastrophe is “caused by repeated drought, widespread flooding and economic chaos.”

Regions of southern Africa have received their lowest rainfall since 1981. The UN indicates that the crisis is fueled by climate change. Temperatures in the region are rising at about twice the global rate. Other countries affected include Zambia, Madagascar, Namibia and Lesotho.

Insuring families against disaster

Extreme weather conditions have made grasslands in countries like Kenya less resilient, threatening the survival of pastoralist families. These parents rely on livestock production to provide for their children. Climate change and desertification are threatening their way of life – and their survival.

The carcass of a sheep lies in the dry dirt under blazing sun.
The remains of the favourite sheep of a little boy named Ejiem, in Kenya. Climate change around the world has contributed to prolonged drought, stripping the land of green, growing things. When livestock perish, people’s livelihoods die, too. Photo: Jon Warren

Recurring drought due to climate change is just one challenge. Many pastoralists (people who raise, tend and sell livestock) have poor access to markets and limited entrepreneurial skills. This leaves them highly vulnerable, barely subsisting instead of growing their income.

World Vision helps reduce families’ vulnerability to climate change, increase their income and improve their food security. Livestock insurance is one of the ways that is accomplished, along with village savings and loans associations to tide families over in disaster.

As a result, pastoralists are working together to improve well-being. Here’s one example of livestock insurance at work for pastoralists.

Two people herd a group of cattle across a plain in Tanzania.
Maasai herders in Tanzania move their livestock on a seasonal rotation. When there’s no vegetation to be found, their livelihoods are at risk. Photo: Jon Warren

Without measures like insurance, families may have no choice but to sell off livestock when they’re unable to keep them alive. Alternatively, they may search tirelessly for water and pasture for their herds – only to run out of options.

World Vision works with providers to help families secure insurance and works with them to improve skills and connections. As a result, even remote villages can become commercial hubs for trade – despite climate change.

Childhood memories of climate change

Kioko Munyao, a climate specialist with World Vision Canada, remembers conversations about climate change, as a boy growing up in Kenya. “In Grade 7, they taught us that the Sahara Desert was quickly encroaching,” he remembers. “But somehow, the expected desert expansion never really happened. Otherwise, it would have reached Southern Africa by now.”

Rather, the weather patterns hastening that encroachment were long-term and cyclical. They resulted in something called a vegetation “transition zone”—not an actual expansion of the desert. The transition zone is where dry, arid conditions of the desert meet up with the moister region of the tropics. It creeps one direction in wetter years and another in dryer ones.

A boy and a pregnant woman stand in the desert, the walls of a derelict building around them.
Natural climate cycles affect rainfall in places like the Sahara Desert. Massive droughts brought on by climate change can make matters worse, forcing people who have existed as nomads for centuries to live in urban areas. Photo: John Shahid

“Such cyclical patterns still exist,” says Munyao, “but they’re now affected by man-made changes.” The result? Increased frequency and unpredictability of drastic weather events like floods and droughts due to climate change.

Helping communities confront climate change

World Vision can’t reverse global warming, but there’s a great deal that communities can do locally to reduce its effects on their lives and thrive. World Vision begins by educating communities on the impact of their activities on local weather patterns, says Munyao.

“When rain falls in a forested area, the forest cover does an excellent job of trapping rain on the ground,” he explains. “Much of that gets absorbed by the trees and plants and they grow strong and healthy.” Groundwater, the water held underground in the soil or pores and crevices in the rock, also increases.

But there’s a second benefit, says Munyao. “Because of all that green cover, water evaporates as vapour. It transforms to rain, which falls on the nearby communities. Then you’ve got a healthy micro-climate.”

When local families clear the land for farming or fuel, there’s nothing to prevent rainfall from just running off the land. “You don’t get the same evaporation,” says Munyao. “That means there’s less rainfall in the area. Everything dries up. Erosion washes away the rich soil, making it even more difficult for plant growth to happen.”

There are ways this can be reversed, as World Vision is discovering in partnership with communities.

Rescuing land from climate change

World Vision pioneered a reforestation project which restored nearly 7,000 acres of land in southwestern Ethiopia. It won global recognition by becoming the first on the continent to earn United Nations-administered carbon credits. The project was supported by the World Bank’s BioCarbon Fund.

A child in Ethiopia smiles while standing in a forest of green.
Families in Humbo, Ethiopia, worked to transform their landscape, increasing hope in the face of climate change. This was the glorious result. Photo: Silas Koch

The community-managed climate change mitigation project happened in Humbo, Ethiopia. World Vision worked with local farmers to help restore degraded and deforested land. This means that they:
  • allowed native trees and shrubs to regrow on degraded forest land from live stumps, underground roots and soil seedbanks;
  • pruned mainly to manage densities and meet local needs for firewood;
  • carefully managed livestock and closed off entire areas to both humans and animals in order to allow native vegetation to regenerate; and
  • succeeded in restoring trees to the landscape, and producing firewood, berries, fruits and nuts to consume and sell.

Two photos joined show the same piece of land about a decade apart. On the left, the landscape is mostly brown and dry. On the right, the landscape is covered with lush vegetation.
Photo: World Vision

Before the project (left)

The area was bare of trees though a few shrubs remained. High rainfall had led to flash-flooding in the area, destroying roads and bridges. There was extensive erosion and large amounts of topsoil had been lost. It was a struggle to grow anything in the area – the trees themselves couldn’t regrow without the right soil and nutrients.

After the project (right)

In about a decade, the area became lush and green, with a rich biodiversity and ample tree cover. The vegetation acts to prevent erosion. This means better water filtration, reduced flash-flooding and more stable agricultural production. The Humbo project has become a model for farmer-managed natural regeneration efforts in other African countries.

The Humbo project is helping alleviate poverty in three ways:
  • by providing more grass to people to cut-and-carry for their livestock and more firewood,
  • by improving ground water and decreased erosion, and
  • by creating a new community-based income stream through the generation of carbon offset credits under the Clean Development Mechanism

A lineup of people carry grassy fodder out of the woods to feed their cattle. One woman is smiling.
Families in a similar forest restoration project in Ethiopia had plenty of fodder for their cattle. Photo: Aklilu Kassaye

Standing up to climate change

Around the world, World Vision is helping communities understand the effects of climate change – and what they can do to stand up to them. Children are a critical part of this. In Myanmar, for example, sponsored children in this youth group are:
  • Learning why natural disasters are increasing in frequency and severity
  • Chronicling the impact of climate change in their communities
  • Teaching adults and other children about the impacts of climate change
  • Caring for their community by planting trees and cleaning up local waterways

A group of children and young people clean a stream using rakes and hoes.
Children in Myanmar are learning about climate change, then making changes in their community. They are taking care of their environment and teaching others. Photo: Kathy Htoo and Khaing Min Htoo

How Canadians can help

Canadians can play a part in helping families overseas survive climate change. As the David Suzuki Foundation notes, we can make changes in our own lives to reduce global warming overall. This could help people we’ve never met in some of the world’s poorest countries.

World Vision invites Canadians to donate a climate change gift through their Gift Catalogue, offering families overseas:
  • Wood-conserving stoves – Fueled by vegetable debris, eco-stoves are easy and safe to use. Families use them to cook, sanitize water and heat their homes on cold nights.
  • Solar lights – Lights are a clean energy source. You’ll give children a way to study at night and families more time to enjoy together.
  • Solar panels – Panels help provide energy for health facilities and irrigation systems.

A solar panel surrounded by a stick fence stands in the heart of a community in Senegal.
Solar panels provide energy for irrigation systems and health clinics, helping families and communities thrive despite climate change. Photo: Paul Bettings