Two basic functions performed by the environment are the 'source' or
production function that supports the livelihood of millions who depend
upon environmental resources, and the 'sink' or pollution absorption and
cleansing function essential for human health and well-being. Not only
are these two functions closely connected in a cycle of production and
renewal but they are being increasingly impaired and degraded by human
|Watershed management and flooding
Poor land-use management can have profound effects on people. By
1986, deforestation in the upper reaches of the Yangtze basin in
China had reduced forest cover from 22 per cent of total area in
1957 to only 10 per cent. As a result, soil erosion from the upper
reaches and siltation in the middle and lower reaches had become
intense. In 1998, the most severe flood in Chinese history hit the
Yangtze valley, affecting 223 million people and causing more than
US$36 billion in economic losses (Shougong 1999).
In July 1997, vast areas of southern Poland, the eastern Czech
Republic and western Slovakia experienced one of the most disastrous
floods in history when the Oder, Elbe, Vistula and Morava Rivers
overflowed. In Poland alone, flooding affected one-quarter of the
land area, including nearly 1 400 towns and villages, destroyed
50 000 homes and caused 162 000 people to be evacuated. Total damage
was estimated at US$4 billion. The severity of the floods was attributed
to the destruction of forest and wetlands, engineering works on
the main rivers and tributaries, and the removal of water-retaining
vegetation which made riverine areas more susceptible to flooding.
Floods have become an increasingly regular occurrence for more than
a decade (EEA 2001).
Degradation of natural resources such as land, fresh and marine waters,
forests and biodiversity threatens the livelihood of many people but especially
the poor. For example, water tables are falling fast under the North China
plain. In 1997, almost 100 000 wells were abandoned apparently because
they ran dry as the water table fell, but 221 900 new wells were drilled.
The drilling of so many wells reflects a desperate quest for water (Brown
The 'sink' function of the environment operates through such processes
as nutrient recycling, decomposition, and the natural purification and
filtering of air and water. When these functions are impaired, health
can be jeopardized by contaminated household water, sanitation problems,
indoor air pollution, urban air pollution and agrochemical pollution.