Quick facts: How climate change affects people living in poverty

April 10, 2018

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  • Flooding, like that caused by Hurricane Matthew in Haiti, can wipe away crops, homes and tools — but it can also contaminate clean water sources and spread disease, creating another layer of risk. Photo: Sean Sheridan for Mercy Corps
  • Climate can be a driver of violence, which drove Esther, 16, into a displacement camp in Democratic Republic of Congo with her family. Photo: Corinna Robbins for Mercy Corps
  • Elvin Alvarado, 59, surveys the damage to his family's plantain farm following Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico is at serious risk of future disasters due to climate change. Photo: Jonathan Drake for Mercy Corps
  • In Mongolia, Mercy Corps is working with farmers to help strengthen their herds in the face of extreme weather. Photo: Sean Sheridan for Mercy Corps
  • When Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines in 2013, many fisherman like Niño lost their boats. When Niño realized his family’s means of survival was gone, he cried. “I have no money. I am poor and I can’t even work now,” he said. Photo: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps
  • Mercy Corps sees the threat of climate change in many places where we work. In Ethiopia and around the world, we’re helping people adapt to increasingly unpredictable rainfall and weather, because we know their food, health and lives depend on it. Photo: Sean Sheridan for Mercy Corps
  • Around the world, farmers like Concy must find ways to grow reliable crops amidst a changing climate. In Uganda, we’ve introduced chia, which is easier to grow and harvest than other traditional seeds. Photo: Corinna Robbins/Mercy Corps
  • Colombia is just one place where we’re helping farmers diversify their crops and learn agricultural practices that make them more resilient. Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps

Around the world, people are experiencing both the subtle and stark effects of climate change. Gradually shifting weather patterns, rising sea levels and more extreme weather events are all clear and devastating evidence of a rapidly changing climate.

The impacts of climate change affect every country on every continent. The increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events like hurricanes, wildfires and droughts threaten food supplies, drive people from their homes, separate families and jeopardize livelihoods. And all of these effects increase the risk of conflict, hunger and poverty.

Visible evidence and climbing numbers demonstrate that climate change is not a distant or imaginary threat, but rather a growing and undeniable reality.

Read on to learn more about how climate change triggers conflict, exacerbates hunger and poverty, and what Mercy Corps is doing to help communities become more resilient in the face of change.

What are the biggest effects of climate change?

Climate change places compounded stress on our environment, as well as our economic, social and political systems. Whether it comes in the form of unbearable heat waves, harsh winters, or extreme weather events like Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, climate change undermines development gains and leads to shortages in basic necessities.

A young mother and her children make their way through a river in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria washed away a nearby bridge. Because of climate change, Puerto Rico is at an increased risk for devastating storms like Maria, putting people and their livelihoods at risk. Photo: Jonathan Drake for Mercy Corps

Climate change threatens the cleanliness of our air, depletes our water sources and limits food supply. It disrupts livelihoods, forces families from their homes and pushes people into poverty.

One-third of the planet’s land is no longer fertile enough to grow food. More than 1.3 billion people live on this deteriorating agricultural land, putting them at risk of climate-driven water shortages and depleted harvests. These circumstances lead to worsening hunger and poverty.

And they’re facing more disasters than ever. The number of people affected by natural disasters doubled from approximately 102 million in 2015 to 204 million in 2016, although there were fewer natural disasters.

They must also learn to adapt to more gradual changes, such as climbing temperatures and declining rainfall. Droughts alone have affected more than 1 billion people in the last decade. Since 2001, droughts have wiped out enough produce to feed 81 million people every day for a year — equivalent to the population of Germany.

Climate change is also one of many root causes of conflict around the world: it leads to food shortages, threatens people’s livelihoods, and displaces entire populations. Where institutions and governments are unable to manage the stress or absorb the shocks of a changing climate, threats to the stability of states and societies will only increase.

Who is most affected by climate change?

While everyone around the world feels the effects of climate change, people living in the world’s poorest countries — like Haiti and Timor-Leste — are the most vulnerable.

Increasingly unpredictable weather patterns, shifting seasons, and natural disasters disproportionately threaten these populations, increasing their risk and their dependency on humanitarian aid.

Three out of four people living in poverty rely on agriculture and natural resources to survive. For these people, the effects of climate change — limited water and food sources and increased competition for them — are a real matter of life and death. Climate change has turned their lives into a desperate guessing game.

Every year, farmers in Niger must cope with the hunger gap — a period of time when the year’s food stores have been depleted but the next harvest is not ready. Climate change has lengthened the dry season, and, with it, the time when families must go without food. Mercy Corps is working with farmers like these to grow hardier crops and help strengthen their families. Photo: Sean Sheridan for Mercy Corps

How does climate change increase conflict?

Conflict is the primary cause of poverty and suffering in the world today. And it’s exacerbated by climate change.

By amplifying existing environmental, social, political and economic challenges, climate change increases the likelihood of competition and conflict over resources. It can also intensify existing conflicts and tensions.

In Democratic Republic of Congo, thousands of children like Theo, 3, are displaced by violent conflict caused in part by the effects climate change. Mercy Corps is helping with emergency water and sanitation programming to help keep them healthy and safe. Photo: Corinna Robbins for Mercy Corps

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, shifts in the timing and magnitude of rainfall undermine food production and increase competition for remaining arable land, contributing to ethnic tensions and conflict.

And in Karamoja, an area of land that straddles the border of Kenya and Uganda, where resource scarcity has been a long-standing challenge, climate change has further reduced pasture and water resources, increasing competition and resulting in violence, such as cattle raiding.

But while climate change can lead to conflict, it can also provide an opportunity for collaboration. These challenges present a unique opportunity for collective action and cooperation in order to mitigate the impacts. For some communities, food, health and lives will depend on cooperation over conflict.

In Uganda, Mercy Corps is helping one South Sudanese refugee form a friendship without borders ▸

What’s the relationship between hunger and climate change?

Floods and droughts brought on by climate change threaten food production and supply. As a result, the price of food increases, and access becomes more and more limited, putting many at higher risk of hunger.

Goats are a critical part of life in rural Niger, where the lean season often makes it difficult for families to find food and earn money. Two years ago, Mercy Corps provided Balki and her husband with two goats—now she has five, which produce enough milk for her six children and help them meet their critical needs. Photo: Sean Sheridan for Mercy Corps

Undernutrition is the largest health impact of climate change in the 21st century. The number of undernourished people in the world has been on the rise since 2014, reaching an estimated 815 million in 2016. And the vast majority live in developing countries. Much of the increase is linked to the growing number of conflicts, which are often exacerbated by climate-related shocks.

In 2017, conflicts and climate disasters put 124 million people in 51 countries up against crisis levels of hunger. According to the Global Report on Food Crises, climate disasters triggered food crises across 23 countries — mostly in Africa — with shocks such as drought leaving more than 39 million people in need of urgent assistance.

How does climate change create refugees?

Rising sea levels, extreme weather events and prolonged drought force millions of people to move away from home every year in search of food, water and jobs.

Since 2008, climate change-induced disasters like Hurricane Maria have displaced an average of 21.7 million people each year — 59,600 people every day, 41 people every minute. Millions more have been forced to leave their homes behind to escape severe drought.

More than 250,000 families have left Puerto Rico since Hurricane Maria struck in September 2017. Thousands more who lost their homes are still displaced across the island, living at local shelters or with friends and relatives. Photo: Jonathan Drake for Mercy Corps

In 2016, there were 24.2 million new internal displacements due to disasters, which accounted for nearly 80 percent of all new displacements for the year.

Meanwhile, gradual changes brought on by deforestation, overgrazing and drought slowly transform pastures to dust, destroy crops and kill livestock, effectively challenging the livelihoods of millions of farmers. These families are forced to leave their homes behind in search of basic necessities and new work.

And as sea levels continue to rise, those living near the ocean — about 40 percent of the world’s population — will be left with no choice but to move inland.

Almost all of these displacements are occurring in developing countries, where people have fewer resources on hand to cope with progressive shifts or sudden disasters.

What’s the forecast for the future?

The impacts of climate change continue to exceed previous scientific forecasts, worsening and multiplying at dramatic rates that will only be amplified in the years to come.

In Ethiopia, Mercy Corps rehabilitated several water ponds like this one to help nomadic farmers access clean water during one of the worst droughts in a generation. Photo: Sean Sheridan for Mercy Corps

Access to clean water is likely to become even more limited, and the risk of hunger and famine will become even greater than it is today. By 2050, climate change has the potential to increase the number of people at risk of hunger by as much as 20 percent. The majority of those at risk live in Africa.

Tens of millions of people are expected to be forced from their homes in the next decade as a result of climate change. This would be the biggest refugee crisis the world has ever seen.

Between 2030 and 2050, climate change is expected to kill an additional 250,000 people each year, from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea and heat stress, while continuing to jeopardize clean air, safe drinking water and sufficient food supply.

How is Mercy Corps helping?

In Mongolia, dry summers lead to harsh winters called the “dzud,” where temperatures can plunge below zero degrees and kill vital grasslands. Mercy Corps is helping farmers like Enkh Erdene improve the productivity of their cattle and farming operations. Photo by Sean Sheridan for Mercy Corps

Around the world, in places as diverse as Puerto Rico, Ethiopia, Mongolia and Indonesia, Mercy Corps is helping people adapt to climate change.

We do this work by considering the challenges each community is facing, and then developing localized solutions that will make the biggest impact. In order to create real and lasting change, the social, economic and political realities underpinning climate change must be addressed, in addition to mitigating the effects on the ground.

Read more about our approach to climate-resilient development ▸

We focus on increasing the use of climate information in decision-making — improving individual, household and community capacity to cope with change. In some cases this means working with government and private sector technology companies to increase the ability to access the information they need to reduce their risks.

Farmer Mya Nwel, 57, waters her chili plants in Myanmar. Mercy Corps is providing technology to help her save water and fertilizer, as well as higher quality seeds. "Now our income has increased, and our harvests and crop quality has improved," she says. Photo: Mercy Corps/Ezra Millstein

We help farmers diversify their crops, learn new technologies, and redesign their farmland to maximize its productivity and protect the soil in the face of increasingly severe and frequent droughts. To support their work, we also help increase their access to banking services such as loans and savings, as well as insurance products to help protect their hard work.

REPORT: How investing in resilience helps fight drought ▸

In 2014, Huka Jilo Kilo, 70, had trouble keeping his animals strong during Ethiopia’s drought and was forced to choose whether to feed his cattle or his family. Thanks to Mercy Corps, Huka learned to keep his herd healthier, and now his animals are producing more nutritious milk and meat, his children are eating better, and he has surplus milk to sell at market. Photo: Sean Sheridan for Mercy Corps

We train herders on how to keep their animals healthy in drier conditions, and boost market systems that can thrive in a changing climate.

How we're helping herders build resilience in rural Ethiopia ▸

We teach communities how to better manage their natural resources, and help them build stronger homes and reinforce river embankments to make them less vulnerable to natural disasters.

Nirmala Shrestha, 43, works together with other villagers in Nepal to mitigate the impact of a landslide following a 2016 monsoon. Mercy Corps is helping communities like hers recover from disaster and better prepare for the next time an emergency hits. Photo: Tom van Cakenberghe for Mercy Corps

We also collaborate with local and national governments to improve their ability to manage and prepare for weather-related risks. We work with government to improve the way water and land is managed, build and manage plans for improving disaster response, and support the development of policies and plans that reduce vulnerability to climate change.

CASE STUDY: A governance approach to building climate resilience in Indonesia ▸

We see the shared experience of climate change as an opportunity for cooperation and collaboration, reducing the risk of conflict. For example, in Karamoja, we are facilitating resource-sharing agreements and promoting cooperation between communities to reduce conflict, providing a space for people living there to pursue new types of work such as cooking, cleaning or construction.

How you can help

Our work to help communities adapt and adjust to climate change challenges is only possible because of people like you. With your support, we are able to reach more families with assistance and help more people build stronger, more resilient and peaceful communities for tomorrow. Here’s how you can help:

Donate today
Help us build more resilient communities.
Sign the petition
Tell Congress to reject cuts to aid.