Working Papers

Population Dynamics, Environment and Conflict




Economic Research Forum (ERF)


September, 1994


J. Labor and Demographic Economics

Abstract The purpose of the paper is to examine the role population dynamics plays as a source of social and political conflict or disorder. The conclusions reached are based on conceptual analyses and empirical observations from African, Asian and Middle East countries. The main conclusion of the paper is that population change has significant effects on social and political conflict. These effects are not direct, however. They exert their impact through other proximate factors such as increased scarcity of renewable resources, reduced economic productivity, migration expulsion, or the weakening of the state authority. Furthermore, the net effect of population change depends on the levels of other indirect factors such as inequality and the quantity and quality of existing resources. Population change could create conditions that reduce the adaptive capacity of society to deal with resource scarcity or technical change. That last effect depends among other things on the structure of the social and political system. The paper identified various mechanisms through which population change affects conflict. These are long and short term effects. It was emphasized that the long term effects of population dynamics on conflict is the most serious because the impact of long term trends is not sudden, but 'creeps in'. However, once the trend takes hold through the presence of a population momentum, it becomes difficult to contain or reverse. These premises were substantiated by the empirical evidence. In cases of extreme poverty and high cropland density, population movement may cross international boundaries. Serious conflict arises especially in the presence of ethnic rivalry as the case of Bangladesh and Assam illustrates. In countries with severe economic and political inequalities, conflict could arise even as the state attempts to remedy the negative consequences of long term population growth, as the case of Mauritania and Senegal indicates. In countries with joint claims on critical renewable resources such as water, solutions imposed without regard to the needs of a large segment of the populations concerned can only create instability in the longer term. This is illustrated by the case of the Jordan Basin.
Population Dynamics, Environment and Conflict

Senior Associates

Ismail Sirageldin

Professor, Johns Hopkins University