Unit F1


The place where something lives is called its habitat. The places where people live are therefore called the human habitat, and this includes the environment where they sleep and eat, and often where they work. People do not usually live wild in nature, they make their own environment adapted to their needs, and they therefore can control whether that is a good or bad environment. Most people live together with other people, whether as an isolated family in a rural area, in a village or tribe, or a larger town or city. A human habitat can range in size from a farm with a family of four to a city of ten million or more, but whatever its size, the fact that people are living together creates special environmental problems. Often these problems get worse as the community gets larger.

The human environment or habitat is managed differently from the natural environment, because people built it themselves and can change it as they wish. However, they still depend on natural resources to provide what they need in that environment.

All people have certain basic needs that must be met if they are to survive or even start to have a decent life. The most important are the physical needs of the body for food, water and shelter. No matter where people live, their first priority is to meet these basic needs. In the smallest communities, the materials to meet these needs may come directly from the surrounding environment: food from nearby gardens, water from an adjacent stream or well, and wood and materials from the forest to build huts. As a community gets larger, supplying these materials can get more complicated, and it takes a larger area to meet the needs of all the people. In a large town or city, large quantities of food and water must be transported to and stored in the town, to be distributed to the inhabitants. The wastes produced by all those people can no longer be left to disappear naturally, but must be collected, removed from the town and disposed of. If these things are not done carefully, serious environmental problems and risks to human health can result.


Supplying food to people who no longer produce their own because they live in a town involves a series of steps, each of which may have environmental effects. Agricultural areas must be developed on rural land to produce the food. The food may need to be processed or preserved in some way so that it can be transported and stored until needed, requiring canneries, refineries, slaughterhouses, freezers, cold stores and other food processing plants. Most of these produce wastes that must be disposed of, often creating pollution problems. The processed food is often packaged in cans, bottles, plastic or paper containers which must also be gotten rid of when the food is eaten, producing more wastes that may be difficult to dispose of. There is also usually some wastage of food that has spoiled during transport or storage.

If care is not taken in handling the food, there is always the risk that diseases may be spread with the food, or that the food will spoil and people will be food poisoned. Government inspection and quality control are usually necessary to protect the public from these dangers, but small island countries may not have the means to maintain the same standards as larger or wealthier countries.

Any country with developing towns or urban areas will find that the need for controls and regulations increases as the communities get larger. Even in small villages, the dangers from food may be present, but the solutions are usually simpler. Everyone has to be careful how they prepare and eat food to avoid creating health problems.


Water is essential for drinking, preparing food, and cleaning ourselves, our dishes, our clothes and our surroundings. In a small village you may be able to walk to a natural source of water. In a town that is seldom possible, and the chances are that any water near the town will be polluted. Safe water usually has to be collected in some rural area, piped to the town, filtered or treated, and they distributed though a complicated system of pipes to the inhabitants. The more people there are, the more water is required, and good water is often the most important limit on development.

Sometimes there is just not enough water. There may be too little rain, or the land may be poor at catching and holding water. However, much of the time the problem is that the water is not clean, and then it can be as dangerous as it is useful.

According to the World Health Organization, more than 70 percent of all hospitalized people got sick from drinking bad or polluted water. In 1981, more than 86,000 people were hospitalized in the Pacific Island countries from drinking bad water. Many more suffered from skin problems, sick stomachs and diarrhoea (runny stools). Nobody knows how many island people get poisoned with things like lead, weed killers, or pesticides in the water we drink. Polluted water does not often kill people but it makes people feel tired, unhappy and sick.

Polluted water does the worst damage to little children. Babies and little children who get sick from bad water can die or can be hurt for life. Life is hard enough without getting sick. Becoming smart and strong should be every child's right, and it is up to the adults to make sure the children get good clean water to drink.

Water that makes you sick may not be a problem all the time. It is worse when there is very little water because of no rain. It is also very bad when there is too much rain. When there is not enough rain many animals like pigs and dogs use the same water as people. Sometimes they spoil the water with their wastes. Some sicknesses get into the water just by the pigs or dogs or cattle walking in it.

When there is very little water it can stand in ponds or mud holes and pollution is not washed away. It can be very dangerous to drink or wash in.

When there is too much rain, wastes from people and animals wash into the water supplies. Soil with pesticides and weed killers and trash with lead and other poisons can get into the water. Sometimes after a big storm there are dead animals in the water and if anybody drinks it they will get sick.

Just because water from some stream or well is good to drink most of the time, do not think it is always going to be good. Even when there is no big rain or drought, water which is usually good for drinking can become polluted if somebody in the village gets sick and goes into the water or puts wastes into the water. Suppose one person goes to visit somebody on another island and gets sick. When that person comes back the sickness can spread to many people if that sick person's wastes get into the water.

Many people think, "I've been drinking this water all my life so it must be alright." But sometimes people get sick and do not know they got sick from the water. And sometimes what was good water a few years ago can become worse and worse as more people use it and wash in it or if new pesticides are used or trash is put into it.

People who live in a city usually think the water from the tap is safe to drink. But sometimes even city water can get polluted, especially after heavy rains. A pipe can also break underground, letting dirt into the water. Even in places where there are systems to chlorinate the water and kill germs, the water is not always safe because sometimes the machines to do this are not taken care of or break down.

The other big problem with water is getting enough of it when there is too little rain. Wells can get polluted, become salty, or dry up entirely. Cisterns are empty. Streams stop flowing, especially if the land upstream has been developed or the forest cut or burned. Water for essential uses may have to be brought from far away. People cannot wash as much and they must live in dirty surroundings, so more of them get sick. Industries using water may have to shut down, putting people out of work.

Making water safe

If you know your water is dirty, or if people, especially children, are getting sick, it is not hard to make water safe to drink. In fact, it is very easy. Most of the problems with water can be solved if the water is boiled before people drink it.

Boiling water may seem like too much effort, and it will use fuel which may be expensive or hard to get, but it is easier to boil water than it is to be sick. It is also cheaper. Babies and children should always get boiled water if there is any doubt that the water is safe. Maybe older people can drink water without boiling it most of the time, especially if you take good care of the water supply to be sure no animals get into it and no people swim in it or use it for a toilet. If people start getting sick in the village or city, especially with diarrhoea or stomach trouble, boil the water until the sickness goes away.

Another simple thing to do to make water safe is put one teaspoon of chlorine (hypochlorite) bleach into every fifty litres of water (about 10 gallons). A steel drum would need 4 small spoonfuls of bleach. After a while the chlorine will kill any germs in the water.

Keeping water clean

Water polluted by germs can be made safe by boiling or adding bleach, but it is much better to prevent water from getting dirty.

Look at where the water comes from in your area. If it is from a stream, do people or animals go along the stream above the water intake? If so, something should be done to keep them away from the stream.

If well water is used, the well should be covered or protected by a wall so that dirt cannot get into it. Spilled water and rainwater should drain away from the well. Never drink from or wash in the bucket used to take water from the well; always pour the water into another container first, and keep the bucket in a clean place. Do not even set the bucket on the ground where it might get dirt on its bottom. A pump is a safer way to draw water from a well. If the well is less than 100 metres from possible sources of pollution like latrines, pig pens, or the village itself, then a new well may be needed in a safer place, or the polluting activities should be moved farther away.

If you get water from a spring, put a fence around it and build a stone or cement wall at least 50 cm high around the spring with a pipe from the wall. Only take water from the pipe.

Do children play in or near the water supply, or do you swim or wash in it? Is rubbish dumped in or near the water supply? Such activities should be separated, or moved downstream from the source of drinking water.

If you use rainwater, the roofs and gutters should be kept clean. After a long period without rain, you should let a little rainwater run off the roof and clean it before starting to fill the tank. People often forget about their water storage tanks and cisterns. They too can be polluted or get dirt on the bottom, and should be cleaned out each year during the rainy season when it is easy to fill them again. Tanks should also be covered and screened to keep out dirt, rats and mosquitos. It is better to draw water from a tank or cistern with a pump or drain tap (faucet); if you scoop water out with a bucket or can, you can easily put dirt in at the same time, especially if the bucket is set on the ground or used for other things like washing.

Water conservation

The weather can sometimes be very strange, and some years many islands may not have enough rain. Wells can be low, rivers may dry up, and water can be very hard to get. Even in normal years there is often a long dry season. So it is important to think about ways to store water and use it carefully. Water is a precious resource.

The water flow in streams and rivers depends on the land that catches the rain. If the land is covered by forest, the forest holds the rainwater like a sponge for drier periods, but if the forest has been replaced by gardens, grassland or scrub, the rain runs off faster and there is less left for the dry season. Replanting trees takes a long time, but it may help to bring water back to a dry stream. It is much easier to protect the forest in important watersheds.

People who put in holding systems or pipes or pumps should keep thinking about the need to conserve water. It seems like a good idea to put in a big tap and a big pipe so that when you turn it on lots of water comes out, but this can waste water. Suppose a pipe gets a small leak or a tap leaks a little; over a few days hundreds of litres can escape from a little leak. If there is no rain for a long time those hundreds of litres can be very hard to replace.

Check cisterns, storage tanks and pipes for leaks during the rainy season, when it is easy to repair them and fill them up again. A leak during the dry season could be a disaster. Storage tanks can lose water to the air if their tops are open. It is best to have them covered. This will also help to keep them clean.


No one wants to live all the time outside in the hot sun, the cool nights, the wind and the rain. We therefore build shelters, houses or buildings to protect us. These can be as simple as a few leaves on some sticks, or a tall concrete and steel building, but the purpose is the same.

Each island culture has its own traditional type of house appropriate to local environmental conditions. The Samoan fale, for instance, has a high thatched roof to protect against sun and rain, but no walls so that the breezes could keep it cool. On the other hand, the Kanak case in New Caledonia has thick walls and no windows, with a fireplace inside to keep it warm on cold nights and for smoke to keep out the mosquitoes. A sturdily constructed traditional house was not only comfortable but remarkably resistant to cyclone damage. Unfortunately such houses have been criticized, not always with good reason, as being unsanitary.

More modern buildings in most islands have tended to be European houses or simple constructions in European style made of wood and corrugated sheet metal. A solid European house may provide good protection, but it is often of a style adapted to temperate conditions, and it may be hot and humid because of inadequate ventilation. The simpler constructions tend to be too hot during the day and too cold at night, and thus often much less comfortable than traditional houses of local materials. They also tend to be extremely dangerous during cyclones or hurricanes. An attempt in New Caledonia to build high-rise apartment towers for low-cost housing was a complete failure; no one wanted to live there, and some were still empty more than 10 years after they were built.

A common problem is the failure to consider cultural factors and life-styles in housing design. It is difficult for people to change their patterns of living to adapt to new surroundings, and new types of housing tend to be more successful if they have been designed by the people themselves, or at least have taken local cultural factors into account. Many European-designed houses have several small rooms (which are cheaper and easier to heat in winter - in Europe) while most island societies require a large space in which the whole extended family can gather. A typical island family just cannot feel comfortable in such a house.

Much work still needs to be done to create new kinds of housing in appropriate materials suited to each island environment and to the modern life of island people.


Are there any problems on your island in producing food for urban areas?

What are some of the local environmental problems created by food production and distribution?

How much of your food is now imported?

Where does your local water come from?

Are there ever any signs that it may be polluted?

What can you do to make the water supply where you live safer?

Do you have problems of water shortage? Has the problem gotten worse? Why?

What are the advantages of your traditional type of house?

Do you prefer a traditional or European house? Why?

Can you think of houses you would not want to live in? What is wrong with them?

Instructions for trainers in the use of this unit

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UN System-Wide Earthwatch Coordination, UNEP, Geneva
Updated 7 April 1998