Growing Population Faces Diminishing Resources

By Cat Lazaroff

WASHINGTON, DC, January 18, 2000 (ENS) - Pay attention: the Earth is in trouble. In the United States and elsewhere, the wonders of the Information Age fill our senses with amazing new inventions and innovations. But hidden in the background noise, a growing list of environmental catastrophes is approaching - and the pace is picking up.

Lester Brown

Lester Brown and the Worldwatch Institute warn that time is running out to preserve many species and ecosystems (Photo courtesy Worldwatch Institute)
The booming information economy may be lulling world leaders into a false sense of security. That is the warning the Worldwatch Institute hammers home in its first report of the new millenium, "State of the World 2000:" Environmental trends, not high-tech gadgetry and instant access to information, will ultimately shape the new century.

"Caught up in the growth of the Internet, we seem to have lost sight of the Earth’s deteriorating health," said Worldwatch president and senior author Lester Brown. "It would be a mistake to confuse the vibrancy of the virtual world with the increasingly troubled state of the real world."

The Worldwatch Institute, a nonprofit research organization that analyzes global environmental and development issues, has been reporting on these trends annually since 1984.

"When we launched this series of annual assessments in 1984, we hoped that we could begin the next century with an upbeat report, one that would show the Earth’s health improving," said Brown. "But unfortunately, the list of trends we were concerned with then - shrinking forests, eroding soils, falling water table, collapsing fisheries and disappearing species - has since lengthened to include rising temperatures, more destructive storms, dying coral reefs and melting glaciers. As the Dow Jones goes up, the Earth’s health goes down."

water pail

Access to clean water can mean the difference between health and disease for millions of children (Photo courtesy United Nations Development Programme - World Bank Water and Sanitation Program)
The mounting problems facing the planet’s ecosystems are also increasingly intertwined.

The biological impoverishment of the Earth is accelerating as human population grows, the Institute reports. The share of bird, mammal and fish species in danger of vanishing forever is now in double digits: 11 percent of all bird species, 25 percent of mammals, and 34 percent of fish.

"I don’t think we’ve yet fully grasped the consequences of our population, that has reached six billion this year," said Brown at a press event last December. The projected growth of world population to nearly nine billion by 2050 will make nearly all environmental problems worse, said Brown. One of the first effects, though not necessarily the most visible, is likely to be a shortage of fresh water.

"Our rivers are running dry. Our water tables are falling. ... The demand for water is simply outrunning the supply," Brown said. "What we have to do is reestablish a new balance between the supply of water and the use of water."

spray irrigation

Traditional spray irrigation loses about a third of the water to evaporation and winds (Photo courtesy U.S. Geological Survey)
Although irrigation problems such as waterlogging, salting and silting go back several thousand years, aquifer depletion is new, Brown said. In the last half century, powerful diesel and electric pumps have made it possible to extract underground water much faster than it is replaced by rain and snowfall.

Already, many agricultural regions are pumping out more water than can be sustained. It takes about 1,000 tons of water to produce one ton of grain, the Institute estimates. Report co-author Sandra Postal estimates that the worldwide overpumping of water, concentrated in the U.S., China, India, North Africa and the Middle East, exceeds 160 billion tons a year - the equivalent of about 160 million tons of grain, or half the annual U.S. grain harvest.

"As globalization proceeds, water scarcity will cross international boundaries through world grain markets," Brown said. Rising grain prices will be the most obvious indicator of falling water tables. "We are artificially borrowing water from future generations," he said.

irrigation

Falling water tables make it increasingly difficult to wrest crops from the desert in North Africa (Photo courtesy NASA)
As more countries reach a higher standard of living, water use in homes and cities is likely to increase as well. "We assume that with development, one day everyone will be able to take showers," Brown said. "We think at the Worldwatch Institute that water is the most underestimated resource issue that the world is facing."

The problem is projected to get much worse unless the world takes immediate steps to reduce water use, and to stabilize population. In many developing countries, most already facing water shortages, population is still rising by millions each year.

In India, for example, the Institute reports that water demand is now almost double the sustainable yield of the country’s aquifers. Meanwhile, the country’s population is increasing by 18 million a year. More than half of India’s children are now malnourished and underweight. As wells run dry and irrigation becomes difficult or impossible, the corresponding decrease in grain production could spell death for millions.

Rising human demands can also cause the collapse of entire ecosystems through soil erosion, pollution and the decimation of forests. Shrinking forests and cropland and collapsing fisheries can all be traced back to expanding human populations, the Worldwatch Institute says. Already, many species are running out of room and resources needed for survival. If humans do not curb their population growth, Brown warns, people may be next in line.

Stabilizing population quickly depends on couples holding the line at two surviving children, which the Worldwatch Institute calls an achievable goal. Some 24 industrial countries have already reached population stability, and several developing countries, including South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand, are approaching stability.

drought

Agronomist Jim Smart and Mexican farmers Miguel Morales Beltran and Hector Rodriquez Mediola discuss the 1996 drought that caused this irrigation ditch near Rio Bravo, Mexico, to dry up (Photo by Jack Dykinga, courtesy USDA's Agricultural Research Service)
Brown points to the need for better education, particularly for young women, and access to family planning services to help reduce family size. The Clinton Administration has proposed $165 million for family planning services overseas, but Brown says that falls well short of the amount the United Nations has proposed to help curb overpopulation.

"The scale and urgency of the challenges facing us in this century are unprecedented," said Brown. "We cannot overestimate the urgency of stabilizing ourselves, now six billion in number, and the natural systems on which we depend."

Tomorrow: Climate Change and Environmental Surprises