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The Natural Resource Degradation and Vulnerability Nexus:

Chapter 1 | Background, Context, and Approach

Renewable natural resources are becoming increasingly degraded, that is, declining in their productive capacity to sustain uses necessary for human well-being and inclusive growth. One-third of all land and 20 percent of all forest cover has been severely degraded (UNCCD 2017). Groundwater, which accounts for 50 percent of drinking water and 43 percent of water used for irrigation, is being depleted at an alarming rate (Smith et al. 2016). The fraction of fish stocks at biologically sustainable levels decreased from 90 percent in 1974 to 67 percent in 2015 (FAO 2018b).

Many of the world’s poor people are resource dependent, that is, directly reliant on natural resources for their well-being. Four-fifths of the world’s poor live in rural areas, and most rural poor people depend on increasingly degraded natural resources for their livelihoods (IFAD 2015; World Bank 2018c). Most of the 3.1 billion people who live in rural areas depend directly on soil and land (FAO 2017). The livelihoods of 2 billion people who live in drylands and who also rear half of the world’s livestock are especially threatened. About 240 million people, including those in many indigenous communities, derive approximately 20 percent of their income from forest resources, which provide 30 million jobs in the informal sector (FAO 2018a). Small-scale fisheries in developing countries employ 90 percent of the world’s fishers and produce about half of global fish catches (World Bank 2012a). Nearly all fish caught are used to feed local communities.

Climate change exacerbates the vulnerability-related risks associated with natural resource degradation. Natural resource degradation increases susceptibility and exposure to climate shocks and further strains the adaptive capacity of resource-dependent communities (Lange, Wodon, and Carey 2018; World Bank 2010b). Recent studies show that the combined effects of resource degradation and climate change could force more than 100 million people into poverty by 2030, especially in Africa and South Asia (World Bank 2016c). Climate change is anticipated to contribute to the displacement of 143 million people, many of whom are vulnerable and live in degraded areas (Rigaud et al. 2018). It will also severely affect food security, especially in degraded landscapes, reducing crop yields by an estimated 10 percent by 2050 (Scholes et al. 2018).

Across the world, the natural resources that are highly degraded and the people who are highly vulnerable are interconnected by a link referred to here as “the natural resource degradation and vulnerability (NRDV) nexus,” which is the subject of this evaluation (figure 1.1). As shown in the left-hand side of the figure, there is a spectrum of natural resource degradation from least to most degraded. From left to right along this axis, natural resources decline in their productive capacity to sustain uses necessary for human well-being. Similarly, there is a spectrum of vulnerability among resource-dependent people from least to most vulnerable (right-hand side). Resource-related vulnerability is highly context specific. It might involve increased risk of poverty, food and water insecurity, livelihood loss, displacement, or ill health. From right to left along this axis, these risks increase for resource-dependent people. The nexus (in red in the center) is at the intersection between highly degraded resources and highly vulnerable resource-dependent people.

Figure 1.1. Natural Resource Degradation and Vulnerability Nexus


Source:  Independent Evaluation Group.

Figure 1.1. Natural Resource Degradation and Vulnerability Nexus

Source:  Independent Evaluation Group.

The World Bank is committed to addressing resource degradation to reduce vulnerability, as articulated in its strategies and goals. Through its twin goals, the World Bank aims to end poverty and boost shared prosperity in a “sustainable and inclusive manner.” The resulting prosperity “also needs to be shared across individuals over time, requiring forms of sustainable development that fully account for environmental degradation and natural resource depletion and, crucially, their close interrelation with poverty” (World Bank 2015, 1). The environment strategy working paper cites the importance of managing resources to enhance livelihoods and improve food security, pointing to vulnerable communities who bear the brunt of environmental decline and who are losing resource access (World Bank 2012b). The “Action Plan on Climate Change Adaptation and Resilience” notes that climate change impacts will “fall most heavily on vulnerable populations, including people dependent on rain-fed agricultural, pastoral, forest, and coastal resources for their livelihoods” (World Bank 2019d, 5). The theme is at the core of the 19th Replenishment of the International Development Association, which cites the need to support “vulnerable populations, indigenous peoples and local communities located in inland or coastal areas and dependent on natural resources” (World Bank 2020b, 6).

However, natural resource degradation is often overlooked because of its gradual nature and the lack of representation of resource-dependent poor people. First, natural resource degradation is a “creeping threat,” not a shock. The processes that cause land and soil degradation, water depletion, and salination are gradual but have compounding effects. They are unlike disasters, whose effects are immediate and severe (Vlek 2005). Ultimately, degradation has knock-on effects on food security and resource scarcity far from its source. An example is the reduction in coastal fish stocks caused by soil erosion that negatively affects water quality. Second, the resource-dependent poor lack voice and agency. They often do not have access to information about their land and resource rights and are not represented in resource-related decision-making processes (FAO 2020). Because of underrepresentation and insecure tenure, resource-dependent communities are losing access to their land and resources, with negative effects on livelihoods, well-being, and ecosystem services (Notess et al. 2018).

Evaluation Aims and Methods

This evaluation assesses how well the World Bank has addressed natural resource degradation to reduce the vulnerabilities of resource-dependent people. It answers two main evaluation questions:

  1. How well has the World Bank identified and addressed resource degradation issues threatening resource-dependent people in the places where those threats are most prominent? This question is addressed in chapter 2.
  2. How effective has the World Bank’s support for natural resource management been at promoting sustainable use of resources and reducing the associated vulnerability of resource-dependent people? This question is addressed by analyzing project effectiveness, including issues pertaining to measurement (chapter 3), and by analyzing a set of explanatory factors of effectiveness (chapter 4).

This evaluation covers natural resources that are critical for the livelihoods and welfare of the vulnerable people who depend on them. These resources include soil and land, local forest resources, groundwater, and small-scale fisheries. Local forest resources provide critical sources of fuelwood, fodder, protein, medicine, building materials, and income—including from nontimber forest products—for forest-dependent populations. The evaluation excludes issues pertaining to the wider global commons (for example, tropical forests, global deforestation, biodiversity, air pollution, marine health) because these either have been or will be covered in other evaluations.

The evaluation uses a mixed methods approach that draws on a range of data sources to collect evidence and derive explanatory factors. It assesses the World Bank’s projects that had resource restoration activities approved and implemented during the evaluation period (2009–19). The methods include structured literature reviews, interviews, a portfolio review and analysis, and comparative case studies that include quantitative, qualitative, and geospatial analysis (see appendix A). The evaluation used an inductive approach to understand how resource-related human vulnerability is conceptualized and measured in World Bank documentation; it further grounded this understanding in local reality through focus groups and interviews conducted with project stakeholders in the case analyses.