Special Report

Countries Doing the Most and Least to Protect the Environment

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9. Uganda
> Pop. exposed to unsafe air pollution levels: 100.0%
> Area with gov. protection: 16.1%
> GDP per capita: $1,698

Uganda is one of several African nations lagging behind most countries in the world in terms of environmental protection efforts. Between 1990 and 2016, a period over which most countries reported improved air quality, the concentration of harmful fine air pollution known as PM2.5 increased by 21.3% in Uganda. Rapid population growth in the country is leading to mass deforestation, and oil exploration in the Albertine Rift Valley continues as the country has an evident lack of alternative energy sources.

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8. Rwanda
> Pop. exposed to unsafe air pollution levels: 100.0%
> Area with gov. protection: 9.1%
> GDP per capita: $1,857

As in many other African nations on this list, many of Rwanda’s environmental problems stem from rapid population growth straining natural resources. Major issues include deforestation, loss of biodiversity, reduced soil fertility, and poaching. Even though the country faces considerable threats from climate change, it’s not well equipped to address the increased frequency and severity of floods and droughts within its borders.

Many of the Rwandan government’s initiatives to combat environmental deterioration, like increasing forest cover to 30% by 2020, are being stymied by rapid population growth.

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7. Iraq
> Pop. exposed to unsafe air pollution levels: 100.0%
> Area with gov. protection: 1.5%
> GDP per capita: $15,393

Less than 2% of land in Iraq is protected by the government, among the least of any country in the world. Protected lands include reserves with limited public access like national parks, wildlife sanctuaries, protected landscapes, and areas managed for sustainable use.

Environmental challenges in the country are also a product of several recent wars, poor land use planning, and the destructive human impact on unprotected fragile ecosystems. Currently, the country faces water quality and shortage issues, poor soil, and ecosystem deterioration. These problems are expected to only get worse as a result of global warming.

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6. Sierra Leone
> Pop. exposed to unsafe air pollution levels: 100.0%
> Area with gov. protection: 3.3%
> GDP per capita: $1,391

The government of Sierra Leone has protected only 3.3% of the country’s territory from environmental damage, a far smaller share than most countries. Indeed, much of the country’s environmental problems are a product of unrestricted mineral excavation — specifically diamonds — and resulting deforestation. Recently, a mudslide attributable to deforestation killed over 1,000 people in the country and displaced nearly 5,000 others.

Sierra Leone is among the world’s poorest countries, and many who live there rely on untreated, polluted water supplies. Additionally, everyone living in the country is exposed to unsafe levels of air pollution.

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5. Djibouti
> Pop. exposed to unsafe air pollution levels: 100.0%
> Area with gov. protection: 1.2%
> GDP per capita: $2,705

Djibouti is a barren country of nearly 90% desert, and the country’s government has fallen short on land-use planning and water treatment and management. Djibouti is also particularly susceptible to the effects of global warming and needs to build up coastal protections, shore up landfill walls, and install drainage systems for water, among other precautionary measures.

Deforestation is depleting the country’s already limited wooded areas. Currently, only 1.2% of the country’s territory is protected as national parks, wildlife reserves and sanctuaries, or areas managed for sustainable use. Additionally, the presence of harmful fine particle pollution has climbed by 54.3% between 1990 and 2016 and everyone who lives in Djibouti is exposed to harmful levels of air pollution.