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by Lester R. Brown, Earth Policy Institute


As land and water become scarce, competition for these vital resources intensifies particularly between the wealthy and those who are poor and dispossessed. With population growth comes a shrinking of life-supporting resources. This shrinkage threatens the living standards of millions of people. Decreasing access to water, like shrinking access to land, discussed in the March 3 issue, is a prime source of social tension, especially in areas such as India and the Near East.
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 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.
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 a water rights agreement exists among the three countries, Ethiopia receives only a minuscule share of water. Given its aspirations for a better life, and with the Nile being one of its few natural resources, Ethiopia will undoubtedly want to take more.
Similarly, in the Aral Sea basin in Central Asia, an uneasy arrangement among five countries governs 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. 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.”
India too faces a deteriorating situation, given that its population is 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.
The relationship between population and natural systems is a national security issue, one that can spawn conflicts along geographic, tribal, ethnic, or religious lines.

Adapted from Chapter 6, “Early Signs of Decline,” in Lester R. Brown, Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization, available on-line at www.earthpolicy.org/Books/PB3/index.htm




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