“There's a wealth of real possibilities for change to a more sustainable and more human course.” – Bill McKibben, billmckibben.com on Plan B.
Chapter 6. Plan A: Business as Usual: Population Growth and Political Conflict
Population growth can lead to political conflict not only between societies but also within them. Some insights into this were offered in an engaging World Watch magazine article by James Gasana, who was Minister of Agriculture and Environment in Rwanda in 1990-92 and then Minister of Defense in 1992-93. As the chair of a national agricultural commission in 1990, he had warned that without "profound transformations in its agriculture, [Rwanda] will not be capable of feeding adequately its population under the present growth rate. Contrary to the tradition of our demographers, who show that the population growth rate will remain positive over several years in the future, one cannot see how the Rwandan population will reach 10 million inhabitants unless important progress in agriculture, as well as other sectors of the economy, were achieved. Consequently, it is time to fear the Malthusian effects that could derive from the gap between food supply and the demand of the population and social disorders, which could result."34
Gasana's warning of possible social disorder was prophetic. He further described how siblings inherited land from their parents and how, with an average of seven children per family, plots that were already small got much smaller. Many tried to find new land, moving onto marginal land, including steeply sloping mountains. By 1989, almost half of Rwanda's cultivated land was on slopes of 10 to 35 degrees, land that is universally considered uncultivable.35
In 1950, Rwanda's population was 1.9 million. By 1994, it was nearly 8 million, making it the most densely populated country in Africa. As population grew, so did the demand for firewood. By 1991, the demand was more than double the sustainable yield of local forests. As a result, trees disappeared, forcing people to use straw and other crop residues for cooking fuel. With less organic matter in the soil, land fertility declined.36
As the health of the land deteriorated, so did that of the people dependent on it. Eventually there was simply not enough food to go around. A quiet desperation developed among the people. Like a drought-afflicted countryside, it could be ignited with a single match. That match was the crash of a plane on April 6, 1994, shot down as it approached the capital of Kigali, killing President Juvenal Habyarimana. The crash unleashed an organized attack by Hutus, leading to an estimated 800,000 deaths, mostly of Tutsis. In the villages, whole families were slaughtered lest there be survivors to claim the family plot of land. Gasana notes that the deaths were concentrated in communities where caloric intake was the lowest. Population pressure contributed to the tensions and the slaughter, although it was by no means the only factor.37
He sees four lessons that can be learned from this tragic chapter in Africa's history. First, rapid population growth is the major driving force behind the vicious circle of environmental scarcities and rural poverty. Second, conserving the environment is essential for long-term poverty reduction. Third, to break the links between environmental scarcities and conflict, win-win solutions—providing all sociological groups with access to natural resources—are essential. And fourth, preventing conflicts of the kind that ravaged Rwanda in 1994 will require a rethinking of what national security really means.38
Many other countries in Africa face a similar situation, including Nigeria, the continent's most populous country with 121 million people. President Olusegun Obasanjo is trying desperately in his strife-torn country to maintain peace between the Christian south and the Muslim north and among various tribes. However, as the desert claims 350,000 hectares of rangeland and cropland each year, people are forced southward into already densely populated areas. The same population pressures, land degradation, and hunger that ignited social tensions in Rwanda are building in Nigeria.39
Many African countries, largely rural in nature, are on a similar demographic track. Tanzania's population of 37 million in 2003 is projected to increase to 69 million by 2050. Eritrea, where the average family has seven children, is projected to go from 4 million to 11 million by 2050. In the Congo, the population is projected to triple, going from 53 million to 152 million.40
Africa is not alone. India faces a possible intensification of the conflict between Hindus and Muslims. In India, as a second generation subdivides already small plots, pressure on the land is intense. So, too, is the pressure on water resources.
With India's population projected to grow from just over 1 billion in 2000 to 1.5 billion in 2050, a collision between rising human numbers and falling water tables is inevitable. In the absence of effective leadership, India could face social conflicts that would dwarf those in Rwanda. As Gasana notes, the relationship between population and natural systems is a national security issue, one that can spawn conflicts along geographic, tribal, ethnic, or religious lines.41
Disagreements over the allocation of water among countries that share river systems is a common source of international political conflict, especially where populations are outgrowing the flow of the river. Nowhere is this potential conflict more stark than among the three principal countries of the Nile River valley—Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia. Agriculture in Egypt, where it rarely rains, is almost wholly dependent on water from the Nile. Egypt now gets the lion's share of the Nile's water, but its current population of 71 million is projected to reach 127 million by 2050, thus greatly expanding the demand for grain and for water. Sudan, whose 33 million people also depend heavily on the Nile, is expected to have 60 million by 2050. And the number of Ethiopians, in the country that controls 85 percent of the headwaters of the Nile, is projected to expand from 69 million to 171 million.42
Since little water is left in the Nile when it reaches the Mediterranean Sea, if either Sudan or Ethiopia takes more water, Egypt will get less, making it increasingly difficult to produce food for an additional 55 million people. Although there is an existing water rights agreement among the three countries, Ethiopia receives only a minuscule share. Given its aspirations for a better life, and with the headwaters of the Nile being one of its few natural resources, Ethiopia will undoubtedly want to take more. With income per person there averaging only $90 a year compared with nearly $1,300 in Egypt, it is hard to argue that Ethiopia should not get more of the Nile water.43
To the north, Turkey, Syria, and Iraq share the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates river system. Turkey, controlling the headwaters, is developing a massive project on the Tigris to increase the water available for irrigation and power. Syria and Iraq, which are both projected to more than double their respective populations of 17 million and 25 million, are concerned because they too will need more water.44
In the Aral Sea basin in Central Asia, there is an uneasy arrangement among five countries over the sharing of the two rivers, the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya, that drain into the sea. The demand for water in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan already exceeds the flow of the two rivers by 25 percent. Turkmenistan, which is upstream on the Amu Darya, is planning to develop another half-million hectares of irrigated agriculture. Racked by insurgencies, the region lacks the cooperation needed to manage its scarce water resources. On top of this, Afghanistan, which controls the headwaters of the Amu Darya, plans to use some of the water for its own development. Geographer Sarah O'Hara of the University of Nottingham, who studies the region's water problems, says, "We talk about the developing world and the developed world, but this is the deteriorating world."45
We can now see early signs of potential conflicts emerging. Population pressure and land hunger in northern China are pushing migrants across the border into sparsely populated Russia. Illegal Chinese migrants are seeking jobs in Siberia, much as Mexican workers do in the southwestern United States. Expanding commerce between the two countries is also increasing the Chinese presence, particularly in the Russian communities near the Chinese border. As population pressure drives people across national borders, it can create ethnic conflicts within the recipient societies and strain relations between the countries of origin and destination.46
34. James Gasana, "Remember Rwanda?" World Watch, September/October 2002, pp. 24-32.
36. Population from United Nations, op. cit. note 1; demand for firewood from Gasana, op. cit. note 34.
37. Gasana, op. cit. note 34.
39. Population from United Nations, op. cit. note 1; conflict from "Nigeria: Focus on Central Region Tiv, Jukun Clashes," U.N. IRIN, 24 October 2001, and from "Nigeria; Focus on Indigene-Settler Conflicts," U.N. IRIN, 10 January 2002; loss of cropland from Government of Nigeria, Combating Desertification and Mitigating the Effects of Drought in Nigeria, National Report on the Implementation of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (Nigeria: November 1999), p. 6.
40. United Nations, op. cit. note 1.
41. Ibid.; Gasana, op. cit. note 34.
42. United Nations, op. cit. note 1.
43. Population from ibid.; income per person from International Monetary Fund, World Economic Outlook Database, Washington, DC, updated April 2003.
44. United Nations, op. cit. note 1.
45. Ibid.; O'Hara quoted in Michael Wines, "Grand Soviet Scheme for Sharing Water in Central Asia is Foundering," New York Times, 9 December 2002.
46. Chinese migration to Russia from Benjamin Fulford, "When Worlds Collide," Forbes Global, 17 February 2003.
Copyright © 2003 Earth Policy Institute