EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown

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

As land and water become scarce, competition for these vital resources intensifies 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, leading to potentially unmanageable social tensions. 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 2007. 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 difficult for the world’s farmers to feed the 70 million people added to world population 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 below that needed for survival.

The Sahelian zone of Africa, with one of the world’s fastest-growing populations, is an area of spreading conflict. 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 more recent conflict in the Darfur region in western Sudan that began in 2003 illustrates the mounting tensions between two Muslim groups—camel herders and subsistence farmers. Government troops are backing Arab militias, who are engaging in the wholesale slaughter of black Sudanese in an effort to drive them off their land, sending them into refugee camps in neighboring Chad. To date, some 200,000 people have been killed in the conflict and another 250,000 have died of hunger and disease in the refugee camps. 45

The story of Darfur is that of the Sahel, the semiarid region of grassland and dryland farming that stretches across Africa from Senegal in the west to Somalia in the east. In the northern Sahel, grassland is turning to desert, forcing herders southward into the farming areas. Declining rainfall and overgrazing are combining to destroy the grasslands.

Well before the rainfall decline the seeds for the conflict were being sown as Sudan’s population climbed from 9 million in 1950 to 39 million in 2007, more than a fourfold rise. Meanwhile, the cattle population increased from fewer than 7 million to 40 million, an increase of nearly sixfold. The number of sheep and goats together increased from fewer than 14 million to 113 million, an eightfold increase. No grasslands can survive such rapid continuous growth in livestock populations. 46

In Nigeria, where 148 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 [Plateau]. Churches and mosques were razed. Neighbor turned against neighbor. Reprisal attacks spread until finally, in mid-May [2004], 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, conflict, and social tragedy. 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 had tripled to 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 ignition came with the crash of a plane on April 6, 1994, shot down as it approached the capital 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 40 million in 2007 is projected to increase to 85 million by 2050. Eritrea, where the average family has six children, is projected to grow from 5 million to 11 million by 2050. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the population is projected to triple, going from 63 million to 187 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 1.2 billion in 2007 to 1.7 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 75 million is projected to reach 121 million by 2050, thus greatly expanding the demand for grain and water. Sudan, whose 39 million people also depend heavily on food produced with Nile water, is expected to have 73 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 83 million to 183 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, then Egypt will get less, making it increasingly difficult to feed an additional 46 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. 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 used for irrigation and power. Syria and Iraq, which are both projected to nearly double their respective populations of 20 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. 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. U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Production, Supply, and Distribution Country Reports (Washington, DC: October 1990); 2007 grainland area from USDA, Production, Supply and Distribution, electronic database, at www.fas.usda.gov/psdonline, updated 10 August 2007; U.N. Population Division, op. cit. note 2.

45. “Time for Action on Sudan” (editorial), New York Times, 18 June 2004; “A First Step to Save Darfur” (editorial), New York Times, 3 August 2007; Coalition for International Justice, “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, The World Fact Book, at www.cia.gov/library/publications, updated 6 September 2007.

46. U.N. Population Division, op. cit. note 2; livestock from FAO, ProdSTAT, electronic database, at faostat.fao.org, updated 30 June 2007.

47. Somini Sengupta, “Where the Land is a Tinderbox, the Killing Is a Frenzy,” New York Times, 16 June 2004; U.N. Population Division, op. cit. note 2; 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. U.S. Census Bureau, Population Division, International Programs

Center, International Database, at www.census.gov/ipc/www/ idbacc.html, updated 26 April 2005; 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. U.N. Population Division, op. cit. note 2.

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

56. U.N. Population Division, op. cit. note 2; Sandra Postel, Pillar of Sand (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1999), pp. 141–49.

57. U.N. Population Division, op. cit. note 2, p. 43; Postel, op. cit. note 56, pp. 141–49.

58. Postel, op. cit. note 56, pp. 141–49; U.N. Population Division, op. cit. note 2.

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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