Integrating Population, Health, Environment

Kelly Rand

Far from gloomy, environmentalists see cause for hope when people are given information to make important life decisions about whether and when to have children.

I am well aware of the stigma that comes with being an environmentalist these days. The constant gloomy drumbeat, with no room for hope or a vision for a better tomorrow, has made us this generation's Chicken Little. However, instead of the sky falling, we talk of water scarcity, widespread poverty, hunger, species extinction, and global warming. It is all too easy to get bogged down with the dire statistics and stay there.

Rather than propagate the Chicken Little stereotype, I am going to offer you a glimpse of hope, a vision of a better tomorrow and in a world where people and nature live in balance and people are healthy, living in a healthy environment, a vision that starts with better health care and economic opportunities for women and children.

Not where you expected an environmentalist to start? Consider this: When couples are given the information and resources to plan the number, spacing and timing of their children, they often have smaller families. Smaller families are healthier and in turn become better stewards of the land. Smaller families also slow population growth and the pressures on our finite natural resources. If there is one thing that unites women and families around the world, it is a shared desire to have healthy children, economic opportunities and a hope-filled future.


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In the Philippines, the small community of Cebu was tasked with a marine preserve, but it failed over the years. Why? The people of Cebu were hungry and needed to fish in order to feed their families. As their population increased, the fish population decreased. So, a program was started to provide access to modern contraceptives, start sea weed farming, and subsidize fresh water provision. The marine preserve started working. When the people were asked why now? Why was the marine preserve working after so many other attempts? The answer was because it was the first time that programs were invested in the lives of the families living near the reserve.

In Guatemala, in the Petén region in the North of the country, a large biosphere reserve was created to protect the great biodiversity found within the forest. Despite putting up fences, warning signs and guards, they could not keep the people from living within the reserve and cutting down the forest. High fertility rates and slash and burn agriculture was prevalent in these rural areas. Only when the reserve incorporated mixed use areas and buffer zones, along with programs that provided family planning services, conservation measures with education, and economic opportunities, did the damage to the forest slow.

On the island nation of Madagascar, only 10% of original rain forest remains. A rapidly growing population, combined with scarce resources has exacerbated the widespread poverty found in mostly rural areas and threatens the rich endemic species found only in Madagascar. When villagers were asked what it would take for people to stop cutting down the forest, the surprising answer was family planning. Programs providing family planning services along with planting techniques and resource management helped improve the lives of the people living in the forest and their ability to protect it.

These are just some examples of integrated Population-Health-Environment (PHE) programs, where the lives of the people living within the forest and next to the ocean, mattered to the health of their environment. The health of people and the health of the environment are intrinsically linked.

Programs like the ones highlighted above are critical to the health and wellbeing of our planet. Integrated programs also yield higher results than those that only focus on one issue or problem. You can learn more about what the US Agency for International Development (USAID) is doing to promote and provide integrated PHE programs by visiting their Earth Day page.

Not only are these programs supported by the US, but also throughout the world. In 2000, 189 countries came together and agreed upon a set of overarching and integrated goals to lift people out of poverty. The UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) brought together all sectors of development including health, environment and poverty alleviation, and said that you can not accomplish one without the other. In 2005, at the Millennium plus 5 summit, provisions were added that strengthened the MDGs: targets concerning family planning and reproductive health as well as targets to mitigate biodiversity loss.

Just as Chicken Little learned his lesson, we should take time this Earth Day to learn ours. By investing in integrated approaches to the world's challenges we can improve the lives of women and families and ensure a healthy environment for future generations to come.

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