Scarcities of Water, Crop and Forest Land Projected


Scarcities of Water, Crop and Forest Land Projected-Summary


Population Action International


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At the turn of the millennium, the future of the relationship between people and critical natural resources has begun to appear more hopeful than it has for some time. Human population growth is slowing down. While slowing, however, significant growth continues, meaning that more people will be sharing such finite resources as freshwater and cropland. And in some regions – notably in sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Asia – large families and early pregnancies provide strong momentum for population growth that could continue for generations to come. But the braking of this growth has been significant enough that many analysts of natural resources are more optimistic about their future availability than they were in the early 1990s.


People in the Balance updates key data on population growth and the state of critical natural resources as the millennium turns. Among its key findings:


·        By the year 2025, between 2.4 billion and 3.2 billion people could live in either water-scarce or water-stressed conditions, depending on future rates of population growth. This compares with 505 million people in these circumstances in the year 2000. Water shortage is likely to grow especially acute in the Middle East and in much of Africa.


·        An estimated 420 million people live today in countries that have less than .07 hectare of cultivated land per person. This benchmark is considered the bare minimum capable of supplying a vegetarian diet for one person, under ideal conditions without use of artificial chemical inputs or loss of soil and soil nutrients. That number of people living in such critically land-scarce countries is projected to increase to between 557 million and 1.04 billion in 2025.


·        Global fish production climbed modestly in 1997, mostly from the expansion of aquaculture in China. Most fisheries worldwide remain fully exploited or in decline, however, and the amount of fish caught per fisher is declining steadily.


·        Today about 1.8 billion people live in 40 countries with 0.1 hectare of forested land per capita, an indicator of critically low levels of forest cover. Based on the medium population projection and current trends in deforestation, by 2025, the number of people affected could nearly triple to 4.6 billion.


·        One-fifth of the world’s population lives on the 12 percent of its land surface with the highest densities of non-human species. Human population is growing significantly faster in these biodiversity hotspots than in the world or in developing countries as a whole. 


·        In 1996, measurable per capita emissions of CO2 rose modestly. This continued a several-year trend of increasing per capita fossil-fuel consumption that, in combination with growing world population, raised the risk of climate change by accelerating the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the global atmosphere. With less than 5 percent of world population, the United States contributed more than 20 percent of these important emissions.


Population is hardly the only force applying pressure to the natural world and the resources it provides. But few would argue that the environmental challenges humanity faces in the 21st century and beyond will become easier to address as the number of human beings continues to increase. For each of the natural resources considered here, the long ascent of population reveals itself as a critical variable influencing resource availability on local, regional and global scales.


The most hopeful aspect of the slowing of population growth remains little known among environmentalists and the general public. More and more, young people on every continent want to start bearing children later in life and to have smaller families than at any time in history. Likewise, in greater proportions than ever, women and girls in particular want to go to school and to college, and they want to find fulfilling and well-paid employment. Helping people in every country obtain the information and services they need to put these ambitions into effect is all that can be done, and all that needs to be done, to bring world population growth to a stable landing in the new century.


What is needed is for government and the private sector to make reproductive health services available to all who seek them, to make sure that girls and boys can go to and stay in school, and to make economic opportunities as accessible to women as to men. Combined with improved energy and natural-resource technologies and saner models of consumption and the “good life,” these strategies can bring humanity into enduring balance with the environment and the natural resources that people will always need.