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
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