When Population Growth and Resource Availability Collide

A growing world population means a dwindling amount of the resources necessary to sustain life. The social tensions throughout Africa show the dangers created by competition for these limited resources.


| Feb. 12, 2009



Water supply

A girl gets a drink of water in Rwanda, where mounting population has limited the resources necessary to sustain life, and has thus caused deadly social conflict.


JON GOS/FLICKR

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.

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 the world population each year. 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 the number 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 more than 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, which 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. At least some 200,000 people have been killed in the conflict, and another 250,000 have died of hunger and disease in the refugee camps.

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 less than 7 million to 40 million, an increase of nearly sixfold. The number of sheep and goats together increased from less than 14 million to 113 million, an eightfold increase. No grasslands can survive such rapid continuous growth in livestock populations.

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. 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 a volatile and violent situation in which finally, in mid-2004, the government imposed emergency rule.





mother earth news fair

MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIR

Oct. 21-22, 2017
Topeka, KS.

More than 150 workshops, great deals from more than 200 exhibitors, off-stage demos, inspirational keynotes, and great food!

LEARN MORE