Helen Clark: International Day for the Eradication of Poverty

17 Oct 2009

As we mark the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty, millions of people across Asia and the Pacific are trying to pick up the pieces of their lives after being hit by a relentless barrage of tropical storms, earthquakes, and tsunamis. Sadly many people died in these disasters.

This year the international community has the opportunity to do something very concrete to tackle the impoverishment associated with climate disasters in the developing world. When they meet on climate change in Copenhagen this December, the negotiators could do a deal which is positive for our climate and for poverty reduction and development.

Efforts to eradicate poverty and to tackle climate change cannot be separated. The experiences of the poor families across the Asia and Pacific region who will wake up this morning in shelters, without homes, or having lost their means of making a living, remind us that the poorest people - those who are least equipped to cope with natural disasters - are most likely to suffer the most severe impacts of climate change. A person living in a developing country is 79 times more likely to suffer from a climate-related disaster than someone living in a developed country.

Climate change has the potential to undermine development progress. As it is, many people  around the world  live without the basic essentials for a decent life, such as access to nutritious food and shelter, to energy, and to clean water and sanitation. The impact of climate change makes life worse for many.

Because of climate change, it is estimated that up to 600 million more people in Africa could face malnutrition as agricultural systems break down; an additional 1.8 billion people could face water shortage, especially in Asia; and more than 70 million Bangladeshis, 22 million Vietnamese, and six million Egyptians could be affected by climate-related flooding.

The effects of climate change weigh disproportionately on the poorest, and on women and children.  Consider girls’ education. In many countries, girls already face considerable hurdles in attending or remaining in school. Research indicates that climate shocks make things worse for them. Indian women born during a drought or a flood in the 1970s were nineteen per cent less likely to attend primary school than were women the same age who were not affected by natural disasters. These disadvantages have further consequences - a poorly educated woman  will not only be less well equipped to adapt to a changing climate; but also she is also less likely to have adequate income and food, or healthy and well nourished children.

The health implications of climate change are serious. Changing rainfall, humidity, and temperature patterns caused by climate change mean that diseases like malaria – which currently claims approximately 800,000 children’s lives each year – will spread to areas where it had previously been eliminated, such as the highlands of Kenya and Jamaica. Increased flooding is likely to exacerbate sanitation problems, especially in densely-populated urban areas, increasing the threat of waterborne diseases like cholera. Already today, it is estimated that 5,000 children die each day due to poor sanitation and a lack of access to clean drinking water.

The United Nations works for all those in the developing countries who are most in need. At the United Nations Development Programme, our major focus is on poverty reduction and the other Millenium Development Goals, sustainable development, and what it takes to achieve these - including good governance and peace and stability.

This year, as we mark the International Day to Eradicate Poverty, let's remember that if we don’t put this fight to eradicate poverty at the heart of any international climate change agreement, we are effectively leaving the world’s poor to “sink or swim" by themselves as Archbishop Desmond Tutu has said. The international community has a collective responsibility to ensure that this does not happen.