Spread the word: We do not live in a world of infinite resources

Societies need to understand that the climate crisis is exacerbating the stress our overexploited ecosystems are experiencing

A man crosses Iraq's Abu Lehya river, which has suffered from a drought-induced drop in water levels. Raising public awareness about resource constraints, and of the burdens that rapid population growth places on arable land and fresh water, is overdue. AFP
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Public awareness and co-operativeness are critical for any country to adapt to the challenges that the climate crisis poses today. Accomplishing a collective goal of this nature requires societies’ full involvement.

For this co-operation to materialise, a society’s awareness of its country’s capacities and constraints, the desired destination, and the importance of getting there is crucial. And it is only when there is co-operation based on awareness of these issues that the right means available for adaptation can be applied.

The need for public awareness is also precursory to the need for financing, because without awareness funds can easily be squandered and opportunities lost. Sustainable development requires awareness that climate change is amplifying pre-existing resource stressors, particularly rapid population growth.

Population expansion can be a boon to development in underpopulated societies. However, in the already populous countries in arid and semi-arid regions, further rapid population growth can derail development. The climate crisis, driven by global warming and reducing rainfall in regions that are already hot and dry, is exacerbating the stress that overexploited ecological resources are experiencing, particularly arable lands and fresh water.

While rapid demographic expansion pushes infrastructure and natural resource systems to the limits, the climate crisis undermines these systems further, raising uncertainty about their present and future viability, durability and productiveness.

Without appropriate adaptation to a crisis that is aggravating economic and environmental challenges and weakening vulnerable communities, economic development objectives become more difficult to achieve. Worse, losses in gross domestic product and even de-development also become real risks.

Agriculture has a strategic role globally. In numerous countries, it is a vital core around which economic development occurs.

It is an employment and livelihood source, a food security pillar, and an input provider to other sectors. In the best circumstances, agricultural activity also supports healthy human and socio-cultural development due to its physiological and psychological benefits, and due to the systems of co-operation in production, trade and conflict resolution that are often integral to a flourishing, well-established agricultural community.

Sustainable development requires awareness that climate change is amplifying pre-existing resource stressors

Sustainable arable land and freshwater resources are the foundations of agriculture’s viability. But human overexploitation and the climate crisis are challenging this viability.

In arid and semi-arid regions, the agricultural sector is doubly vulnerable to distress: it is exposed to the adverse impact of climate change on top of the ramifications of rapid population expansion. Even some humid countries face similar serious risks. Some countries in Asia, Africa and the Middle East, where the ecological resource base and agriculture remain central to development, appear to be less resilient to the climate crisis than where these strenuous conditions don’t exist.

The consequences of climate change for the ecological capacities of countries, particularly where agricultural dependence is significant, could reverberate across all other sectors.

Raising awareness of these issues in affected countries is imperative to mobilise populations towards co-operative adaptation efforts and avoid the worst outcomes of the climate crisis on vulnerable communities and areas. Diminished awareness is an obstacle to adaptation.

Two contrasting cases can illustrate this point.

The economies of the US and Egypt are vastly different in size, degree of sophistication and average per capita income levels.

In 2020, the US had a population of about 331.5 million, three times Egypt’s 107.5 million. From 2010 to 2020, America’s population grew by just 7.4 per cent, while Egypt’s grew by 23 per cent.

The total land area of the US is almost 10 times that of Egypt. Population density is much lower in the US than in Egypt, resulting in lower levels of stress on natural resources and infrastructure. With an uninhabitable desert dominating more than 95 per cent of its land area, Egypt’s actual population density is much higher than the reported data. Resource, infrastructural and service pressures are much more pronounced than what the data implies. The sheer geographic spread of the US also grants it several climate zones that support diverse agricultural production throughout the year.

Due to the significance of agriculture in a country like Egypt, the relative balance of eco-agricultural resources and population is relevant not just to the state and outlook of agriculture but to sustainable development broadly.

Egypt’s arable land area is about 3.4 million hectares, which presently allows for an extremely meagre per capita share of 0.03 hectares. In the US, the per capita share of its arable land that exceeds 157.7 million hectares is about 0.475 hectares. The cultivated area in the US is four times that of Egypt’s, and the potential for further expansion in the former is much greater still.

Egypt is also water-scarce, while the US is not. The average per capita share of the total annually renewable freshwater supply in Egypt is now below 570 cubic metres, nearing absolute scarcity. Although droughts occur in the US, its per capita share of this resource is 9,271.8 cubic metres.

Ecological and agricultural production constraints in Egypt relative to its population size are clearly extreme compared to those in the US. That Egypt’s population would grow three times as fast as America’s, even it has fewer eco-agricultural resources than the latter, appears to reflect – among other things – a low level of public awareness of existing resource constraints in the North African country.

Raising public awareness of these constraints, and of the burdens that rapid population growth places on arable land and freshwater, is overdue.

Struggles of an agricultural sector that is central to development would inevitably extend to other sectors and population groups outside rural communities.

Awareness depends on both positive and negative influences. Understanding the risks that affect different communities, and previous experiences of adverse impacts, are perception-building factors that can motivate transformational adaptation. Appreciation of opportunities associated with adaptation also supports similar behavioural changes.

Raising awareness can be achieved through several channels. Access to information in schools and universities, in public campaigns, in training workshops, and through the visual arts are some of these avenues.

Without sufficient awareness, therefore, we face a steep uphill battle to reduce poverty, improve health conditions and expand inclusive opportunities for a dignified life. We urgently need community actions and public policies that support modifications in habits and expectations affecting resource use and that deteriorate resource quality and deepen resource stress and scarcity.

Amal A Kandeel is principal of Pioneers International, LLC, a US-based consultancy, and formerly the founding director of the Climate Change, Environment, and Human Security Program at the Middle East Institute in Washington

Published: October 03, 2023, 7:00 AM