EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown

Chapter 6. Early Signs of Decline: Population and Resource Conflicts

As land and water become scarce, we can expect competition for these vital resources to intensify within societies, particularly between the wealthy and those who are poor and dispossessed. The shrinkage of life-supporting resources per person that comes with population growth is threatening to drop the living standards of millions of people below the survival level. This could lead to unmanageable social tensions that will translate into broad-based conflicts. 43

Access to land is a prime source of social tension. Expanding world population has cut the grainland per person in half, from 0.23 hectares in 1950 to 0.10 hectares in 2004. One tenth of a hectare is half of a building lot in an affluent U.S. suburb. This ongoing shrinkage of grainland per person makes it more difficult for the world’s farmers to feed adequately the 70 million or more people added each year. 44

The shrinkage in cropland per person not only threatens livelihoods; in largely subsistence societies, it threatens survival itself. Tensions within communities begin to build as landholdings shrink to an area smaller than that needed for survival. The Sahelian zone of Africa, with one of the world’s fastest-growing populations, is also an area of spreading conflict. 45

In troubled Sudan, 2 million people have died and over 4 million have been displaced in the long-standing conflict of more than 20 years between the Muslim north and the Christian south. The conflict in the Darfur region in western Sudan that began in 2003 illustrates the mounting tensions between two Muslim groups—Arab camel herders and black African subsistence farmers. Government troops are backing Arab militias, who are engaging in the wholesale slaughter of black Africans in an effort to drive them off their land, sending them into refugee camps in neighboring Chad. To date, some 140,000 people have been killed in the conflict and another 250,000 have died in the refugee camps of hunger and disease. 46

In Nigeria, where 132 million people are crammed into an area not much larger than Texas, overgrazing and overplowing are converting grassland and cropland into desert, putting farmers and herders in a war for survival. As Somini Sengupta reported in the New York Times in June 2004, “in recent years, as the desert has spread, trees have been felled and the populations of both herders and farmers have soared, the competition for land has only intensified.” 47

Unfortunately, the division between herders and farmers is also often the division between Muslims and Christians. The competition for land, amplified by religious differences and combined with a large number of frustrated young men with guns, has created what the New York Times described as a “combustible mix” that has “fueled a recent orgy of violence across this fertile central Nigerian state [Kebbi]. Churches and mosques were razed. Neighbor turned against neighbor. Reprisal attacks spread until finally, in mid-May, the government imposed emergency rule.” 48

Similar divisions exist between herders and farmers in northern Mali, the New York Times noted, where “swords and sticks have been chucked for Kalashnikovs, as desertification and population growth have stiffened the competition between the largely black African farmers and the ethnic Tuareg and Fulani herders. Tempers are raw on both sides. The dispute, after all, is over livelihood and even more, about a way of life.” 49

Rwanda has become a classic case study in how mounting population pressure can translate into political tension and conflict. James Gasana, who was Rwanda’s Minister of Agriculture and Environment in 1990–92, offers some insights. 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.” Although the country’s demographers projected major future gains in population, Gasana said in 1990 that he did not see how Rwanda would reach 10 million inhabitants without social disorder “unless important progress in agriculture, as well as other sectors of the economy, were achieved.” 50

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 were fragmented further. Many farmers tried to find new land, moving onto 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. 51

In 1950, Rwanda’s population was 2.4 million. By 1993, it was 7.5 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 trees disappeared, straw and other crop residues were used for cooking fuel. With less organic matter in the soil, land fertility declined. 52

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. Like a drought-afflicted countryside, it could be ignited with a single match. That match ignited with 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 of Tutsis and moderate Hutus in 100 days. In some villages, whole families were slaughtered lest there be survivors to claim the family plot of land. 53

Many other African countries, largely rural in nature, are on a demographic track similar to Rwanda’s. Tanzania’s population of 38 million in 2005 is projected to increase to 67 million by 2050. Eritrea, where the average family has six children, is projected to grow from 4 million to 11 million by 2050. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the population is projected to triple, going from 58 million to 177 million. 54

Africa is not alone. In India, tension between Hindus and Muslims is never far below the surface. As each successive generation further subdivides already small plots, pressure on the land is intense. The pressure on water resources is even greater.

With India’s population projected to grow from 1.1 billion in 2005 to 1.6 billion in 2050, a collision between rising human numbers and shrinking water supplies seems inevitable. The risk is that 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. 55

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 Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia in the Nile River valley. Agriculture in Egypt, where it rarely rains, is wholly dependent on water from the Nile. Egypt now gets the lion’s share of the Nile’s water, but its current population of 74 million is projected to reach 126 million by 2050, thus greatly expanding the demand for grain and for water. Sudan, whose 36 million people also depend heavily on food produced with Nile water, is expected to have 67 million by 2050. And the number of Ethiopians, in the country that controls 85 percent of the river’s headwaters, is projected to expand from 77 million to 170 million. 56

Since there is already little water left in the Nile when it reaches the Mediterranean, if either Sudan or Ethiopia takes more water, Egypt will get less, making it increasingly difficult to feed an additional 52 million people. Although there is an existing water rights agreement among the three countries, Ethiopia receives only a minuscule share of water. 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 averaging only $860 a year in Ethiopia compared with nearly $4,300 in Egypt, it is hard to argue that Ethiopia should not get more of the Nile water. 57

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 double their respective populations of 19 million and 29 million, are concerned because they too will need more water. 58

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. (See Chapter 3.) 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 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.” 59

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43. Günther Baechler, “Why Environmental Transformation Causes Violence: A Synthesis,” Environmental Change and Security Project Report, Issue 4 (spring 1998), pp. 24–44.

44. Grainland area in 1950 from U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Production, Supply, and Distribution Country Reports, October 1990; 2004 grainland area from USDA, Production, Supply, & Distribution, electronic database, at www.fas.usda.gov/psd, updated 13 September 2005; population from United Nations, op. cit. note 1.

45. Editorial Desk, “Time for Action on Sudan,” New York Times, 18 June 2004.

46. Sudan update from Coalition for International Justice (CIJ), “New Analysis Claims Darfur Deaths Near 400,000: Experts Estimate 500 People a Day Are Dying,” press release (Washington, DC: 21 April 2005); CIJ, Table: “Estimates from Retrospective Mortality Surveys in Darfur and Chad Displacement Camps, Circa February 2003—April 2005,” at www.cij.org, April 2005; “Sudan,” in U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, World Fact Book, at www.cia.gov/cia/publications/factbook, updated 30 August 2005.

47. Somini Sengupta, “Where the Land is a Tinderbox, the Killing Is a Frenzy,” New York Times, 16 June 2004; Nigeria population data from United Nations, op. cit. note 1; 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).

48. Sengupta, op. cit. note 47.

49. Ibid.

50. James Gasana, “Remember Rwanda?” World Watch, September/October 2002, pp. 24–32.

51. Ibid.

52. Population from United States Census Bureau, Population Division, International Programs Center, International Database, at www.census.gov/ipc/www/idbacc.html, updated 26 April 2005; demand for firewood from Gasana, op. cit. note 50.

53. Gasana, op. cit. note 50; Emily Wax, “At the Heart of Rwanda’s Horror: General’s History Offers Clues to the Roots of Genocide,” Washington Post, 21 September 2002.

54. United Nations, op. cit. note 1.

55. Ibid.; Gasana, op. cit. note 50.

56. United Nations, op. cit. note 1; Nile River discussed in Sandra Postel, Pillar of Sand (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1999), pp. 141–49.

57. Population from United Nations, op. cit. note 1; income per person
calculated from gross domestic product based on purchasing-power-parity in International Monetary Fund, World Economic Outlook Database, Washington, DC, updated April 2005; Postel, op. cit. note 56.

58. Postel, op. cit. note 56; United Nations, op. cit. note 1.

59. O’Hara quoted in Michael Wines, “Grand Soviet Scheme for Sharing Water in Central Asia is Foundering,” New York Times, 9 December 2002.


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