04/21/2014 03:34 pm ET Updated Jun 21, 2014

On Earth Day, Remember the World's Poor

By Bill O'Keefe

Today is Earth Day, bringing to mind images that have been thought of since the first such celebration in 1970, of belching smokestacks, of pipes pouring poison into pristine streams, of smog-shrouded cities.

Let me give you another image: of small donkey-pulled carts streaming to and from a city in West Africa. What could be wrong with that? Such no-emission transport would seem to a bucolic ideal that is the aim of Earth Day.

Those empty carts move quickly on the way out of the city, very slowly as they head back in, the donkeys straining under the load. They are carrying wood for fires. Again that seems in line with Earth Day's aims - wood-fired stoves have been seen as a sustainable alternative to other forms of heat.

But these loads of wood are fuel for cooking fires in the burgeoning slums of cities. Left behind in the countryside are barren landscapes. With trees gone, topsoil blows away or erodes. Farming gets tougher. More people move to the city. They need more wood.

So on this Earth Day, do not only think of the industrialized countries and their myriad environmental challenges, think also of people in the developing world who face challenges of their own.

Many of these are not of their own making. These countries produce very little of the world's output of greenhouse gases, yet their people are some of the most vulnerable victims to the climate change attributed to those emissions.

In Central America, for example, climate variations could wreak havoc with coffee growers as their land becomes unsuitable for that crop. As the Catholic Relief Services (CRS) report "Tortillas on the Roaster" documented, action must be taken now to transition these smallholding farmers to other crops or they will join the migration to overcrowded cities - and maybe to other countries.

Similar climate variations are playing out in cycles of drought and flooding that can push subsistence farmers over the edge into dependency on food handouts. CRS is working to improve agricultural techniques to build resilience when faced with these conditions.

In low-lying countries such as Bangladesh, rising sea levels are making typhoon season more devastating than ever. We must work to help people survive these storms in better shape and recover more quickly as longer-term solutions are sought.

Throughout the world the stronger storm systems that many attribute to climate change have brought devastation to poorer communities in their path. These communities need assistance to recover and rebuild in a way that will help them survive the next storm.

One of the major environmental challenges in poorer countries and communities is access to a reliable supply of clean and safe water. Around one fifth of the world population lives in regions affected by physical water scarcity. By 2025, 800 million people are expected to be living in countries or regions with absolute water scarcity.

This is of course a problem that disproportionately affects the poor, those in slums and remote villages. Most market-based solutions do not help these people because they do not have access to piped water. CRS has worked with communities around to world help them develop systems that give access to clean water and build up civic structures that can help solve other problems.

Such work must balance conservation with the needs of families and communities for water needed for domestic use and agriculture. Governments, humanitarian organizations and the private sector must work together to institute integrated water resource management approach for poor communities.

The bottom line is that we need to treat water as a precious natural resource, rather than an expendable commodity to be exploited without reference to environmental sustainability.

As for those donkey carts full of wood in West Africa, there is hope that simple, sustainable reforestation programs will change the future. Dig a crescent-shaped trench with its dirt piled up alongside, plant a native seedling the middle and soon the wind is depositing nutrient-rich topsoil that nurtures the seedling. In a year, greenery colors the once-barren landscape. Trees begin to grow. Agriculture returns.

On this Earth Day, all of us, rich and poor, must realize that we share the same planet and commit ourselves not to contest its resources, but to work together to use them in a sustainable way. Part of that challenge will be helping poor communities adapt to climate shocks they already face while taking the difficult steps to prevent as much as possible the worst impacts of climate changes that are expected to come.

Bill O'Keefe is Vice President for Advocacy for Catholic Relief Services, the official overseas humanitarian organization of the Catholic Community in the United States.