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Overpopulation May Lead to Conflict


While the world's average annual population growth rate of a little more than one percent is declining, most projections say the current global population of more than six-and-a-half-billion people will likely hit nine billion by 2050. The expectation that most of the growth will occur in poor countries worries some analysts who say overpopulation could lead to conflict.

Declining population growth rates are largely concentrated in industrialized countries like Japan and Germany. The United States' population of about 300-million is expected to reach some 420-million by mid-century. In contrast, Sierra Leone, a nation of about six-million and one of the world's poorest, will likely more than double its population to nearly 14-million.

Some experts note that large demographic increases are relatively manageable for countries with stable socio-political environments and resource distribution systems that provide for their citizens' needs. But the Population Institute's President Lawrence Smith says brisk population growth can quickly lead to overpopulation and instability in poor countries with stressed resources.

"Rapid population increases have an impact on virtually every environmental, health, education, economic and gender equity concern in the world. But when you look at global security, which is only one of them and is one that is important in our minds, you can see some of the changes that are taking place and how countries that are referred to as 'fragile states' are characterized," says Smith.

Population Threats

Angola and Sudan, for example, are cited by the World Bank as extreme examples of "low-income countries under stress." The list also includes Haiti, the Central African Republic, Somalia, the Solomon Islands and Myanmar. In all of these cases, Smith says population density taxes available space and resources, thereby undermining stability.

"Obviously, this [i.e., overpopulation] is not the exclusive factor. We just think it is such an important one that it is probably the key factor. Seventeen of the countries, for example, in the severe level [category] are going to more than double their populations by the middle of this century," says Smith. "And four of these countries - - that's Burundi, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia and Somalia - - are projected to struggle with population increases near or above 200 percent. So, these things are run-away situations." Smith notes that countries like Angola, which are rich in natural resources, often have a hard time getting back on the development track once consumed by civil conflict.

When they do recover, William Ryerson, President of the Vermont-based Population Media Center, says their population growth often outstrips their resources. "In Rwanda, the population, which is expected to double by 2030, has already exceeded the ability of the farmland they have available. They are cutting down parklands and eating into the rainforests to grow additional crops and they're farming the mountains all the way to the peaks without terracing," says Ryerson. "And with an average of six children per woman and less than ten percent of women using any method of family planning, the population continues to grow, threatening any future development effort in that country."

The Age Factor

Most experts agree that overpopulation, combined with poverty and weak governance, produces a disruptive demographic. And as researcher Elizabeth Leahy of Population Action International in Washington found out, this restive element is often composed of a society's younger generation. "What we found is that countries in which at least 60 percent of the population was under the age of 30 were overwhelmingly the most likely to have experienced civil conflict. Eighty percent of all outbreaks of civil conflict between 1970 and 1999 occurred in those types of countries that had overwhelmingly young populations," says Leahy.

Leahy's research, which covered all countries and linked conflict to the age of various population segments, showed that nations with large, young demographics, such as in Sub-Saharan Africa, tend to be more unstable than those with older populations, as in Europe. Under certain conditions, Leahy says, a youthful demographic faced with unemployment, rapid urbanization and socio-political problems can be a destabilizing force.

"What can happen here is that if there is a country that has a weak government or an autocratic government and that's combined, for example, with shortages of natural resources and basic education, health and employment opportunities for young people - - if all these factors are combined with the demographic pressures of an increasingly growing population - - then we think that can create an environment that's more susceptible to conflict," says Leahy.

Avoiding Conflict

Some analysts say the stability of populous countries like the United States and Japan serves to show that overpopulation can be successfully managed. The real problem, says historian Victor Davis Hanson of the Hoover Institution, is the inefficient distribution of resources and poor governance.

"The problem with instability is not necessarily overpopulation. Japan has about a 100-million people and it is doing okay. And Germany, for example, today has about 82-million people. It's how you determine how resources are used. Constitutional governments, transparency, civilian control of the military - - all of these protocols allow people to make use of resources in a way that's much more efficient and fair than other alternative systems," says Hanson.

Whether instability is worsened by overpopulation or uneven distribution of natural resources, most experts warn that countries with high population growth and not enough resources to provide for their people are likely to breed unrest locally and export it abroad.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program, VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.

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