Vital Signs 2003

Poverty, Disease, Environmental Decline Threaten Global Stability

Washington, D.C.— Failure to meet the needs of the world’s poorest citizens threatens long-term global stability, reports Vital Signs 2003, the latest publication from the Worldwatch Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based research organization.

The report points to the more than 13 million children who have lost a parent due to AIDS, the 14.4 million people who die each year from infectious disease, and the 12 million international refugees in the beginning of 2002 as clear indicators of a world where human suffering is rampant. While the global economy has grown sevenfold since 1950, the disparity in per capita income between the 20 richest and 20 poorest nations more than doubled between 1960 and 1995.

“The world's failure to reduce poverty levels is now contributing to global instability in the form of terrorism, war, and contagious disease,“ says Vital Signs Project Director Michael Renner. “An unstable world not only perpetuates poverty, but will ultimately threaten the prosperity that the rich minority has come to enjoy.“

Vital Signs 2003— produced in cooperation with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)— also warns that environmental degradation is exacerbating poverty and further contributing to global instability.

Weather-related disasters brought on by land clearing, deforestation, and climate change are most catastrophic for the world's poorest citizens. In 2002, rains in Kenya displaced more than 150,000 people, while more than 800,000 Chinese were affected by the most severe drought in over a century. Over the past two decades, floods and other weather-related disasters were among factors prompting some 10 million people to migrate from Bangladesh to India.

At least seven small island nations face the prospect of a sizable share of their populations being displaced by sea level rise due to global warming in the coming decades.

“It is almost impossible to ensure lasting peace and stability when massive inequalities exist and the natural systems that support us remain under threat,“ says UNEP Executive Director Klaus Toepfer. “Little will ever be achieved in terms of conservation of the environment and natural resources if billions of people have no hope, no chance to care.“

For the past 12 years, Vital Signs has tracked a wide array of economic, environmental, and social trends, using thousands of different data sources, in order to gauge the health of human societies and the natural world. Among the indicators of growing pressures on the world's poor cited in this year's report:

  • Infectious diseases kill twice as many people worldwide as cancer each year. Those dying of infectious illnesses are often either in the early or prime years of life, unravelling the economic and social fabric of societies. (The dramatic emergence of SARS in recent months now threatens the health not only of Asian economies but also of the global airline industry).
  • Roughly one-quarter of the world's 50 wars and armed conflicts of recent years have involved a struggle for control of natural resources. Virtually all of these conflicts have occurred in poor countries where a particular ethnic group or economic elite has gained control of resources at the expense of the poor majority.
  • Harvesting of illegal drug crops—principally cannabis, coca, and opium poppies— has increased dramatically since the 1980s, leading to rising addiction rates in industrial nations, and a growing black market that undermines development in many poor nations.
  • In addition to the 12 million “official“ refugees worldwide, there are another 50 million environmental refugees—driven from their homes by dam building, drought, flooding, etc.— and other internally displaced persons not included in official UN statistics.
  • Corruption— the misuse of public power for private benefit— is costing some of the world's poorest countries billions of dollars each year and undermining efforts to promote economic development.

Vital Signs 2003 provides further evidence of the importance of the Millennium Development Goals, adopted by 191 nations in 2000. Among other targets, these goals call for halving the share of the world's people living in extreme poverty by 2015, as well as the share suffering from hunger and lacking access to clean drinking water; reducing infant mortality rates by two-thirds; and ensuring that all children are enrolled in primary school.

Governments reaffirmed the Millennium Development Goals at last year’s World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg and agreed to several other important targets, including restoring fisheries, stabilizing biological diversity, and meeting the sanitation needs of half a billion people.

In this year's edition, the following trends stand out as holding promise for progress:

  • HIV/AIDS TREATMENT: While only four percent of people living with HIV/AIDS in low- and middle-income countries are receiving treatment, some progress has been made in making access to treatment more equitable. In 2002, Botswana became the first African nation to adopt a policy of universal access to treatment, while other nations like Brazil, Argentina, Costa Rica, and Panama are providing free or subsidized treatment.
  • COMMUNICATIONS: The gap between the information haves and have-nots is still huge but shrinking, thanks largely to new mobile phones, whose towers are cheaper to build than conventional, fixed-line systems. In Africa, mobile phones now outnumber fixed lines by a higher ratio than on any other continent.
  • CLEAN ENERGY: New industries are beginning to provide pollution-free electricity and good jobs. Global wind power use has tripled since 1998 and is the now the world's fastest-growing power source. As new policies are adopted, rapid growth is projected in China and India over the next few years.

In light of the many findings in Vital Signs 2003, Worldwatch President Christopher Flavin expressed deep concern that a faltering global economy and the vast effort now required to restore peace in the Middle East will divert the resources needed to address the causes and consequences of poverty in scores of developing nations.

“The human tragedies behind the statistics in Vital Signs 2003 are compelling reminders that social and environmental progress are not luxuries that can be set aside when the world is experiencing economic and political problems,“ says Flavin. “Suffering that is allowed to fester today will lead to adverse and unpredictable consequences for many tomorrows to come.“

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