Population growth taxing planet’s resources

Oct 25th, 2011 | By | Category: Adaptation, Advocacy, Biodiversity, China, Development and Climate Change, Disaster and Emergency, Governance, India, Land, Lessons, Migration, News, Opinion, Population, Resilience, Urbanization, Women

India, which is on track to become the world’s most populous country by 2025, hopes to transform its demographic boom into an engine for growth, but the country faces many challenges, including educating its young.

Washingtonpost: Humans have mined resources from the remote and rocky coast of Peru and Chile for more than a century and a half, gathering the guano deposits of seabirds for fertilizer and gunpowder. Those seabirds flourished on anchoveta in the coastal waters, while Peruvians in the highlands ate the same fish as dried snacks.

Now fishing vessels haul 7.5 million tons of the small silvery fish out of the water every year. Almost all the catch is reduced to fish oil and fish meal, which is fed to pigs, poultry and salmon being raised thousands of miles away to satisfy demand in the industrialized and rapidly-growing developing world.

The Peruvian seabird population that used to number in the tens of millions has dropped to 2 million.

“These fish are an important source of food, and the basis of the ecosystem,” said Peruvian conservation biologist Patricia Majluf. “It’s part of the global syndrome of misuse of resources.”

As the global population reaches the 7-billion mark, these sort of ecological distortions are becoming more pronounced and widespread. Sometimes local needs are depleting water, fish and forests; other times food and fuel needs in one region of the world are transforming ecosystems in another. Under either scenario, however, expanding human demands are placing pressure on resources, particularly on world water supply and fisheries.

Robert Engelman, executive director of the Worldwatch Institute, noted that societies have repeated this pattern of depleting one natural resource and then turning to another, whether it’s the whale oil that gave way to fossil fuels or the guano that has been substituted by chemical fertilizer. But the current scale of exploitation has become so vast, Engelman said, that it now exacts even larger consequences.

“When you have China out roaming the seas looking for anything they can get for its population of 1.3 billion people, that’s increasingly affecting any local resource anywhere in the world, which is at risk of getting depleted for a distant populous power,” Engelman said.

These extractive activities are not just a simple function of adding people to the planet: They are driven as well by the rising economic aspirations and lifestyle choices humans are making around the globe.

Robert Glennon, the University of Arizona’s Morris K. Udall professor of law and public policy, said water supplies are under pressure because they meet so many needs. About 70 percent of the world’s fresh water is used for irrigation, 22 percent for industry and 8 percent for domestic use, according to the U.N. World Water Assessment Programme.

Climate change is reducing the fresh water people get from glaciers and springs in South and Central America, as well as in the Himalayas. At the same time, aquifers are becoming contaminated in countries such as India and Bangladesh as industrialized activities and population expand.

“It’s the most critical resource issue, partly for itself, partly for its contribution to producing energy and growing food” said Glennon, author of the book, “Unquenchable: America’s Water Crisis and What to Do About It.”

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