Unit B1 - Problems in the Rural Environment


Unit B1


People who live in rural areas are usually more aware of the limitations of their natural environment because they live so close to it, and it is easier to see the damage that human activities may do to resources that are important to them. This unit discusses general problems in most rural environments. It can be replaced by the special units on drylands, mountains and small islands which have unique environmental problems.

Most rural environments have a number of environmental resources: land used for agriculture and food production, grazing land for animals, forest or woodland, natural areas with native vegetation and animals, perhaps some freshwater features such as streams, a river or lake, and for some a coastal area along the ocean or sea. There are also the villages or towns where human activities are concentrated. Each of these may have some particular environmental problems or management challenges.


The following are qualitative descriptions of the most pressing environmental concerns facing most rural areas.

Domestic Waste

The most widespread environmental problem, affecting almost all rural areas with populations of any size, is the safe disposal of liquid domestic wastes, particularly human wastes and urban sewage. Few developing countries have adequate waste collection and treatment facilities even in the most developed urban areas, and those that exist are costly and seldom properly maintained. In spite of considerable efforts at rural sanitation, facilities in many rural areas are still rudimentary or entirely lacking. The result is serious water pollution both of fresh water supplies (wells, springs, rivers, groundwater and even rainwater catchments) and of coastal waters around beaches, reefs and lagoons that are important for tourism, recreation and fishing. This pollution presents grave risks to human health.

It is only in the last few decades that countries have begun to pay serious attention to this problem, but the investments required to collect and treat domestic wastes are such that progress is very slow.

Forest cover

Another major environmental concern for the future of developing countries is the steady reduction in forest cover in almost every country (except those that already have no forest left). Forests are logged for local use or export; shifting cultivation and clearing for agriculture are constant pressures on the forest resource; and frequent uncontrolled fires eat into the forest margins in some countries. This not only represents the loss of a significant productive resource, but contributes to many subsidiary problems such as water shortages, soil erosion, and loss of habitat for endangered species. While many countries have tree replanting programmes, these have rarely been more than marginally successful.

Land Use and Land Tenure

In rural areas, productive land is usually the most important resource for local people. It must be used efficiently to meet the needs of the people for water, food, building materials and reasonable quality of life, and to maintain the functioning of natural systems on which all these depend. This requires comprehensive planning and careful allocation of land to the most appropriate use or combination of uses. Traditional systems of land and resource tenure often worked effectively when populations were smaller western approaches to land management were sometimes introduced in colonial times. But rural person's attachment to his or her land may go far beyond western concepts of ownership, and include mystical and spiritual dimensions rooted in traditional cultures. There were often systems of collective tenure that were effective before European contact in maintaining the fair allocation and wise management of scarce resources, but authority and control within traditional land tenure systems tend to break down with modern influences and over-population. European systems of individual freehold ownership are no improvement in this respect. Where neither traditional nor Western systems of ownership function effectively, there can be anarchic development, resource abuse and destruction without the possibility of imposing modern systems of zoning or control in the common interest. While some land is abused, other areas are neglected. However, tampering with land rights in rural areas can produce the same type of reaction as would interfering with religion. Restoring or building on customary systems of management may be the most acceptable and effective approach where it is still possible.

Human Habitat and Infrastructure

There are also problems of the human habitat in most rural areas, particularly involving housing and sanitation. In countries where cyclonic storms, hurricanes or typhoons are common, many houses are unable to resist hurricane force winds, or are in areas subject to flooding or landslides. Rural areas often lack essential infrastructure like roads or other means of transport that allow rural products to be sold in urban markets or for export, and that make it possible for rural children to continue their education beyond what is available in the village. The pressure of migration to urban areas has also resulted in overcrowding and makeshift construction in towns and cities, with consequent health and social problems. Some cities now have at least partial sewage treatment, but the problems of urban pollution in general are far from solved even there.


The above problems are the most widespread in their impacts in the rural areas of most developing countries, and thus rank first in priority. Another group of concerns affect many countries and territories. They are frequently given high priority at a national level.

Soil Loss

The soil resource, essential for agriculture, is the fundamental basis of rural prosperity. Developing countries are subject to the same problems of soil erosion and loss of fertility as most other parts of the world. Places where soils were poor to begin with, or with irregular topography, geological instability, heavy rainfall or large areas of cleared land, all face increased susceptibility to erosion. Traditional agriculture generally involved lengthy fallows or the addition of humus, but these techniques are being abandoned with modernization and increasing pressure on the land. The result is a steady increase in soil loss and an increase in degraded land.

Water Shortage

While heavy rains are characteristic of many tropical areas, they can be irregular from season to season and from year to year. Since most rural areas have little water storage capacity, dry periods can result in serious water shortages which hamper development, and can create serious public health problems. Destruction of forest cover has caused many formerly perennial streams to stop flowing in the dry season. In coastal areas, groundwater supplies can be irreversibly contaminated by saltwater if too much water is extracted from wells. Rainwater catchments are dependent on regular precipitation. Where these problems are common, water is often the most limiting factor in development.

Solid Waste Disposal

Traditionally where all the materials people used were produced locally, wastes also could be absorbed by the natural system. Today with more and more imported materials, there is a growing problem with solid waste disposal even in rural areas. The steady increase in imports from overseas has brought with it an accumulation of old car bodies and broken down heavy equipment, appliances, bottles, cans and plastic. Disposal sites are often in swamps or along rivers, or take land from other important uses. Collection and disposal of wastes are expensive on a small scale, so that wastes are either not collected, or the disposal sites are improperly managed, with resulting health and pollution problems.

Toxic Chemicals

There is widespread concern about the potential dangers of the toxic chemicals being used in rural areas in increasing amounts. Most developing country governments lack adequate legislation controlling toxic chemicals. Pesticides or herbicides may be imported in bulk and then repackaged without adequate labeling, resulting in accidental poisonings. Chemicals brought in on a trial basis, or given on aid, may simply sit in a warehouse until the containers deteriorate and the contents spill out or seep down into the groundwater. Products considered too dangerous elsewhere are still in widespread use (and misuse) with no public awareness of the risks involved. Pesticides have been widely used in campaigns to control mosquitoes and other insect pests with no monitoring of possible environmental effects. Spraying equipment may simply be washed in the nearest stream, which may also serve as a village water supply. Accidents with toxic chemicals can have serious effects on people's health but few rural doctors have experience in identifying poisoning by toxic chemicals, so most incidents probably go unreported. Monitoring for chemical residues in foods and the environment has hardly begun.

Nature Conservation

The problem of the conservation of nature can be important in developing countries where there are still large natural areas undisturbed by human activities. Sometimes these areas have unique floras and faunas with endemic species found nowhere else. The demands of increasing human populations make it difficult protect natural areas even where the land tenure situation would allow such action. Steady habitat destruction, and competition and predation by introduced species further increase the pressure on native species. The problem of nature conservation can become critical as the area of undisturbed natural habitat diminishes, but in developing countries the scientific and financial resources available to deal with the problem are very limited.

While a number of developing countries have made great efforts in setting aside protected areas, the needs far exceed the means. In addition, creating protected areas can reduce the natural resources available to local people. Solutions need to be integrated into larger programmes of rural development so that the people benefit from and support them. Conservation areas which are created and managed by the traditional land owners represent the kind of creative approach to conservation needed in rural areas.


A third group of environmental concerns are not as widespread as those above, affecting only a few developing countries, but they are significant in the local areas affected.


The damage or destruction of productive coastal resources and fisheries is a nearly universal problem. Coral reefs are destroyed by construction or dredging, pollution, siltation and dynamiting or poisoning for fish. Mangroves are killed off by dredging or filling, or by changing essential patterns of water circulation and salinity. Seagrass beds are dredged or silted over. Modern boats and fishing techniques combined with increased fishing pressure have driven some coastal fisheries resources (such as giant clams, dugongs or manatees, and sea turtles) to extinction in local areas, and left others seriously depleted. Ciguatera fish poisoning has increased with damaging activities in coral reef areas, further reducing useable fish resources. The result has been a steady reduction in the productive potential of coastal fisheries, one of the most important subsistence sources of protein, with a corresponding increase in imports of canned fish and other substitutes.

Coastal Erosion

Coastlines are in a dynamic relationship with the sea, with material constantly being deposited on or carried away from the shore. While the building of new land is usually considered desirable, coastal erosion is a serious local concern, particularly where it affects roads, buildings or scarce agricultural land. The expense of protective works to control erosion of shorelines is a continuing drain on those countries suffering from this problem. The sea level is now rising more rapidly because of global warming, so the problem of coastal erosion and flooding can only get worse.


Mining is a significant economic activity in some rural areas of developing countries, and it is inevitably accompanied by serious environmental problems. These include the disposal of mine wastes, tailings and processing wastes, erosion problems and the pollution of rivers in mined areas, loss of natural habitat or of land with agricultural potential, and the abandonment of unusable wastelands once the mining has ended. While new mines today are generally subject to strict environmental controls, older mines and areas abandoned after earlier mining continue to present serious environmental problems.

Industrial Pollution

Industry is not widespread in rural areas of developing countries, concentrating mostly on the processing of food or minerals for export. However, it frequently causes pollution and other problems in localities where it occurs. Wastes from fish and fruit processing plants, effluent from textile dyeing, and dangerous air pollution from smelting operations are some examples of localized industrial pollution problems in developing countries.


The above problems all contribute in one way or another to the most critical environmental issue facing developing countries: the sustainable use and management of limited land resources. Population growth as such is not always the most important factor; some countries have rapidly increasing populations, while in others the population may have stabilized, and in some industrialized countries it is declining. Nevertheless, human activities are leading everywhere to a gradual (or not so gradual) erosion in the resource base on which all people, and particularly rural people depend for survival. In rural areas where there are not many alternatives, the limits to resources are closer and there is less room for error; if people can no longer survive on their resources, they must migrate.

It is clear that the solution to these problems of the environment and of sustainable resource use will require management skills and a good scientific understanding of the local environment. Unfortunately, skilled people and scientific infrastructure are sorely lacking in developing countries, and even more so in rural areas. In the past there were traditional experts on resource management at the local level, but more than a hundred years of missionary activity, colonization, European education and modernization have largely destroyed this knowledge and the traditional management systems through which it was applied.

If the people in rural areas are to ensure for themselves a satisfactory environmental future, they must take measures to reverse the steady erosion in their resource base and to stabilize their populations within the carrying capacity of their local area, even if this means modifying what they see as deeply held cultural values. They must increase efforts to restore damaged resources, and to achieve comprehensive management of different resource uses and development activities. This will be very difficult, as it requires questioning some of the development assumptions and goals inherited from former colonial masters or copied from elsewhere. It is clear from the above list of environmental concerns that each local rural area requires forms of development adapted to the limitations of the environment, and drawing as much from the traditional societies that successfully lived within those limits for generations as from the modern world.

A comparison of the environmental concerns of developing countries with those of industrialized countries shows a profound difference of emphasis, at least in the short term. The pollution resulting from modern technological development is much less important than the need for sustainable management of the natural resource base. As non-renewable resources such as fossil fuels run out, we shall need to return to a form of economy based largely on rural resources like agriculture and forestry. Rural areas can therefore become a potential model for the future, facing now what must become the long-term preoccupation of the whole world as resource degradation approaches the limits of the planet.


Which of these environmental problems are the most important in your country?

Why are they so important?

Which problems are not significant where you are?

Why not?

Which problems are caused primarily by local people?

Have some problems been imported from outside?

Can the government solve all these problems?

What can you do to solve environmental problems where you are?

Instructions for trainers in the use of this unit

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Last updated 4 July 2008