Quick facts: How climate change affects people living in poverty

10 Apr

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 the world's food supply, drive people from their homes, separate families and jeopardise 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.

The situation is dire.

The latest United Nations climate change report warns that our window to address the threat is shrinking rapidly.

And it's people living in poverty who have the most to lose.

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 or Cyclone Idai in Zimbabwe, climate change undermines development gains and leads to shortages in basic necessities like food and water.

“PeopleIn March 2019, Cyclone Idai torn through communities in southern Africa, wiping out homes, crops and important infrastructure like roads and bridges. Here, families in Zimbabwe attempt to recover their belongings from the wreckage. PHOTO: Ezra Millstein/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.

Research suggests the planet has lost around one-third of its arable land over the past 40 years, in large part due to climate disasters and poor conservation, and every year more trees and soil are lost. More than 1.3 billion people live on deteriorating agricultural land, putting them at risk of depleted harvests that can lead to worsening hunger, poverty and displacement. Soil is being lost between 10 and 100 times faster than it is forming.

And natural disasters are becoming increasingly frequent and destructive. The number of people affected by natural disasters doubled from approximately 102 million in 2015 to 204 million in 2016. Fewer people were affected in 2017, but at a higher price, with the year’s events costing a total of £271 billion and driving a 49 percent increase in economic losses over the previous decade. These damages can be nearly impossible for families living in poverty to overcome.

As climate events worsen, people are also threatened by more gradual changes, such as climbing temperatures and declining rainfall.

Droughts alone have affected more than 1 billion people in the last decade, and the damage hits the agriculture industry — the primary source of food and income for many people in developing countries — particularly hard. Between 2006 and 2016, more than 80 percent of drought damage was absorbed by agriculture, and 2017 data from the World Bank reported drought has wiped out enough produce to feed 81 million people every day for a year since 2001.

As these situations grow more desperate, food shortages could also force families to leave their homes and migrate to other countries.

Climate change is 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?

An infographic stating that three out of every four people living in poverty rely on agriculture to survive.

While everyone around the world feels the effects of climate change, the most vulnerable are people living in the world’s poorest countries — like Haiti and Timor-Leste — and the world’s 2.5 billion smallholder farmers, herders and fisheries who depend on the climate and natural resources for food and income.

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

A young woman and man work in a small field of lettuce.Juliana, 24, and her brother Estanislau, 35, work their family’s farm in Timor-Leste. The family relies largely on their crops of coffee, greens and vegetables to survive. PHOTO: Ezra Millstein/Mercy Corps

Nigerien women at their farm.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

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

As the effects of climate change increase, so will their desperation.

How does climate change increase conflict?

A herder stands with his cattle in Nigeria.Longstanding tension between farmers and herders in Nigeria's "Middle Belt" region has recently been exacerbated by the effects of climate change. Thousands have been killed and displaced by a surge in violence and reprisal attacks, in large part over diminishing resources like land and water. PHOTO: Ezra Millstein/Mercy Corps

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.

A displaced woman waits with a crowd of people to receive a cash distributionClimate change contributes to instability that regularly drives people from their homes in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Here, 65-year-old Deodat (centre) waits with other internally-displaced people to receive emergency cash from Mercy Corps. PHOTO: Elizabeth Dalziel 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 places like central Nigeria and 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?

Climate change threatens the world's food supply.

Floods and droughts brought on by climate change make it harder to produce food. As a result, the price of food increases, and access becomes more and more limited, putting many at higher risk of hunger.

A young girl stands outside her home in rural NigerFati, 8, lives in an area of Niger where food insecurity driven by land degradation and unseasonable rainfall has been made worse by nearby conflict that has displaced people and disrupted market activity. “We fight every day to keep having something to eat,” says Fati’s mother, Hani. PHOTO: Ezra Millstein/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 increasing since 2014, reaching nearly 821 million — a staggering 11 percent of the entire global population — in 2017. The vast majority live in developing countries — research shows hunger to be particularly on the rise in South America and almost every region in Africa. More than 30 percent of people in eastern Africa faced hunger in 2017.

Much of the increase is linked to the growing number of conflicts, which are often exacerbated by climate-related shocks. According to the 2019 Global Report on Food Crises, more than 113 million people in 53 countries were plunged into crisis levels of hunger in 2018; two-thirds of them were in places affected by conflict or insecurity. And climate and natural disasters alone triggered food crises for an additional 29 million people — mostly in Africa — with shocks such as drought leaving them 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 lose or move away from their homes every year in search of food, water, shelter or jobs.

More than 60 percent of all new displacements last year were the result of weather-related disasters, with a total of 17.2 million people around the world being driven from their homes by shocks like drought, hurricanes and landslides — almost 50,000 people every day.

A damaged building in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in Puerto Rico.Tens of thousands of families left Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria struck in September 2017. Because of climate change, Puerto Rico is at an increased risk for devastating storms like Maria, putting people, livelihoods and homes at risk. PHOTO: Jonathan Drake for Mercy Corps

Meanwhile, gradual changes brought on by deforestation, overgrazing and decreased rainfall 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 and climate change?

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.

A woman uses a small pitcher to collect water from a hole she dug in a dry river bed.In Ale, Ethiopia, 40-year-old Manase collects water for her family from a hole she dug in the dry river bed. There is no water in the river during the dry season, so Manase must dig to find it. “The water problem in our village is very serious,” she says. PHOTO: Ezra Millstein/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 reportedly 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, diarrhoea and heat stress, while continuing to jeopardise clean air, safe drinking water and sufficient food supply.

How is Mercy Corps helping?

A Mongolian farmer.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: 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 localised 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.

A female farmer in Myanmar.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 maximise 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 ▸

A woman stands near a water reservoir in Kenya.Kaltuma, 30, looks out over a reclaimed water reservoir near her home, a pastoral community in Kenya, which has recently been hit by a years-long drought. Mercy Corps helped expand the water source to help families in the region survive the dry spell. PHOTO: Ezra Millstein/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.

A woman works in a sugarcane field in rural Nepal.Sarita, 54, works in her village’s sugarcane field in rural Nepal. Her indigenous community has repeatedly been displaced by flooding from the nearby river, but Mercy Corps helped them plant sugarcane along the river bank, which holds back flood waters and doubles as a source of income. Since the sugarcane was planted, the community has reclaimed 40 hectares of land. PHOTO: Ezra Millstein/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.