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Published: 2009

Addressing poverty

Luis C. Rodriguez

Poverty reduction and halving the proportion of the global population living in extreme poverty by 2015 is one of the eight Millennium Development Goals established by the United Nations at the Millennium Summit in 2000. This goal is currently ranking high on the agenda of donors, governments, research organisations and development agencies.

Microfinance schemes have helped lift people out of poverty, such as this shop-owner in Benin, Africa.
Credit: USAID/Jacqueline Ahouansou

Despite becoming a public aspiration, reducing poverty represents a major task, since poverty is a complex concept that goes beyond economics (e.g. income or job access) to include other dimensions, including: human (health, education); political (empowerment, exclusion); socio-cultural (status, dignity); and protective (risk, vulnerability).

These dimensions are interrelated, and their relative importance changes over time. For example, someone’s perception of poverty will change once their basic living needs, such as food and health, are satisfied; then, other conditions such as inequity, the quality of their local environment, or their lack of power and choice will be perceived as major descriptors of poverty. Thus, poverty reduction might have different meanings in different circumstances, and a different set of strategies should be implemented to address it.

Considering that poverty is not a static condition, there is a need to refine metrics to identify the poor and assess whether someone is about to enter or escape poverty. This requires defining the configuration and thresholds of relevant attributes of the dimensions that constitute an acceptable standard of living.

The challenges here are: for some dimensions the measurement of attributes is insurmountable; there is a lack of consensus about the relative weights of the different dimensions of poverty; and some dimensions can be substitutes in the short term, while being complementary in the long term. Consequently, the empirical application of multidimensional measures of poverty has been limited, and the use of ‘poverty lines’ is still the most common approach for assessing poverty.

These poverty lines differ for different countries, but in order to determine a global threshold to identify the poor, the average of the poverty lines of the world’s 15 poorest countries was estimated. The resulting value of US$1.25 a day is considered the global extreme poverty line, and there are currently 1.4 billion people living below that line – one in four of the world’s citizens.

Traditionally, poverty reduction strategies have included promoting economic growth, attracting develop-
ment aid, supporting good governance and debt relief, improving markets and improving the social environment and abilities of the poor.

But poverty reduction should not be achieved at a high environmental cost. The linkages between environmental and socio-economic systems are becoming more evident for policy- and decision-makers. It is now recognised that environmental degradation is a major barrier for poverty reduction; at the same time, reaching environmental conservation goals requires progress in the eradication of poverty.

Thus, it is possible to identify common causes and solutions for poverty and environmental problems. For solutions to be successful, poverty reduction and environmental initiatives should be linked and implemented together.

In the past, efforts towards simultaneously reducing poverty and protecting the environment were over-ambitious and ineffective, but there is now empirical evidence that conservation initiatives such as payments for environmental services might have a positive contribution to poverty reduction, while microfinance approaches and conditional cash transfers – a type of direct payment designed to reduce poverty – might exhibit indirect environmental benefits, representing a starting point for the design of novel instruments to reach both environmental conservation and poverty alleviation objectives.

Despite the success of some local and regional initiatives in reducing poverty, at a global scale, and despite the fact that the percentage of people living in poverty is falling by 1 per cent a year, the absolute number of poor people is still increasing (mostly in sub-Saharan Africa), and the projection is that 1 billion people will still be living below US$1.25 a day in 2015.

Luis C. Rodriguez is an ecological economist with CSIRO Sustainable Ecosystems working on the design of efficient and equitable economic instruments to achieve both environmental conservation and poverty alleviation objectives.

More information:

Sachs JD and Reid WV (2006) Investments towards sustainable development. Science 312, 1002.
Chen S and Ravallion M (2008) ‘The developing world is poorer than we thought, but no less successful in the fight against poverty’. World Bank Policy Research Working Paper Series: 4703.

Published: 2009

Northern water assessment informs development capacity

Helen Beringen

It either doesn’t rain or it pours up north. Such variability is one of the challenges identified in the first consistent, analytical water assessment of northern Australia released from CSIRO’s Water for a Healthy Country Flagship. The work is informing thinking about the development capacity of the region.

Regional coverage of the Northern Australia Sustainable Yields Project.
Regional coverage of the Northern Australia Sustainable Yields Project.
Credit: CSIRO

Rainfall and runoff variability are just two components of a comprehensive review of water resources for water policy decisions which form part of the assessments undertaken by the Northern Australia Sustainable Yields Project.

Released by Parliamentary Secretary for Water, Dr Mike Kelly, at the RiverSymposium in Brisbane on 21 September, the study resulted from a March 2008 agreement by Council of Australian Governments (COAG) to extend the CSIRO work on sustainable water yields and availability that had been completed in the catchments of the Murray-Darling Basin.

Dr Kelly said the research would be a valuable resource to inform decisions about the conservation and development of northern Australia’s water resources.

‘From Broome in Western Australia to Cairns in Queensland, the Northern Australia Sustainable Yields (NASY) reports provide important information on current and likely future water availability in northern Australia,’ he said.

Despite popular perceptions that northern Australia has a surplus of water, the research found the extremely seasonal climate with continuously high temperatures meant that the landscape was annually water-limited, with little or no rain for three to six months every year, and very high potential evapotranspiration rates.

‘Northern Australia experiences high rainfall during the wet season, with most falling near the coast and with year to year amounts that are highly variable,’ said project leader Dr Richard Cresswell.

‘Runoff follows a similar pattern to rainfall, with most surface flow approaching the estuaries, with potential inland dam sites receiving less and quite variable amounts of water and suffering very high evaporation rates.

‘The very few river reaches that flow year-round are mostly sustained by localised groundwater discharge and have high cultural, social, ecological and developmental value,’ he said.

‘Groundwater may offer potential for increased extractions for development, though the highly dynamic nature of shallow aquifers, which rapidly fill during the wet season and drain through the dry season, means there is little opportunity to increase this groundwater storage and careful management is required where these groundwaters also provide sources for the few perennial rivers.’

Dr Cresswell said future climate predictions for the north suggest that evapotranspiration was likely to increase while rainfall was likely to be similar to historical levels, which were lower than the last decade, particularly in the west.

Speaking to ABC Rural, Joe Ross, Chair of the federal government’s Northern Australia Land and Water Taskforce (charged with finding new development opportunities in Northern Australia), said the CSIRO report confirmed that expectations for food production in the north have been ‘over the top’, and that there would be limited opportunity for broad-scale agriculture in the tropics.

The Taskforce’s submission to the government later this year will take into account the central findings of the CSIRO teams’ work. ‘It covers not only the amounts of water in northern Australia, but also what impact there’ll be on the livelihoods of the community of northern Australia, in particular, one of the main constituents being Indigenous Australians,’ Mr Ross said.

The Northern Australia Sustainable Yields Project is part of the Australian Government’s Northern Australia Water Futures Assessment (NAWFA), a five-year program to develop an enduring knowledge base to inform decisions about conservation and development of northern Australia’s water resources, so that any development proceeds in an ecologically, culturally and economically sustainable manner.

More information:

Dr Richard Cresswell:

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