7 billion people and the resource crunch! Who is the real culprit?

A few days back, the world population touched the 7 billion mark. No wonder the debate has gained momentum about how this growing population would put unprecedented pressure on already scare resources. The riots over food (in Egypt), water crisis and deaths due to curable diseases in developing countries have raised concerns over the population explosion. With the 7 billionth living child hailing from a country like India (and some other nations, symbolically chosen by the UN), the blame of populating the world and causing the global crisis is being shifted back to the developing nations and citizens of the Third World! But then, the moot question is – is the earth really not ready for 7 billion people and is nature really stretched for generating resources for all? Are the citizens of developing nations consuming more and is the population expansion in these countries the real reason behind the growing resource crunch?

Last year in August, Obama blamed India and China for the global food prices hike and commented, “As you see more and more demand placed on our food supplies around the world; as folks in China and folks in India start wanting to eat more meat and commodity prices start going up...” In 2008, a Wall Street Journal article concluded how human population growth will get limited with “the rising consumption trends of large developing nations such as China and India.” On hindsight, the answers to the questions I asked one paragraph above are – as often touted by heads of developed states – yes! But then, the analysis reveals a completely different picture.

The stark truth is that the total food grain consumption of an average American is more than 5 times that of an Indian (per capita Indian consumption of food grain is 178 kg per year, while it is 1,046 kg for an American) – this was revealed by the US Department of Agriculture in 2007. According to the same source, an American’s grain consumption per capita per day is thrice as much as an average Chinese’s!

According to WHO, the per capita per day grain consumption figure for the developing countries is a measly 2681 kcal in 1997-99; estimated to be slightly better in 2015 at 2850 kcal – while the developed countries were way ahead with 3380 kcal as far back as in 1997-99, a figure that’s expected to be 3440 kcal in 2015. The most repugnant situation is in sub-Saharan Africa which has a per capita food consumption as low as 2195 kcal; South Asia has a slightly better figure of 2403 kcal per capita per day! With a per capita per year food grain consumption of only 162 kg, Africa is a land of the hungry and destitute, and a showcase for the world to see the plight of the hungry in harsh contrast to the luxury of the developed world!

The entire hypothesis gets more transparent with the fact that the entire shortage and hue and cry over the food crisis is a gift of the West. Researches by Stockholm International and the Food and Agriculture Organization show that the world is not facing any food crisis; but in reality, the food crisis is due to wastage of food. The total food produced across the world is enough to feed the world comfortably. A 2002 report by FAO substantiates the above hypothesis by stating that across the globe, “agriculture produces 17 per cent more calories per person today than it did 30 years ago, which is enough to provide everyone in the world with at least 2,720 kilocalories (kcal) per person per day...” A Stockholm International reports states that US alone wastes around 30 per cent of food and water that can fulfil the needs of around 500 million people – or shall I say, a figure equal to the population of a country like Singapore or two Botswanas or four Swazilands for that matter. As per the latest study conducted by the Swedish Institute for Food and Biotechnology (in 2011), the total food wasted by consumers in developed nations is equal to the entire food produced in sub-Saharan Africa. For the uninitiated, around 239 million people sleep hungry every night in Sub-Saharan Africa. This is not all. Europe annually wastes around 280 kg of food per person while the figure reaches 295 kg per person in North America. In contrast to this, Sub-Saharan Africa (in spite of being more populated) wastes 160 kg food per capita per year – less than half of what is wasted by an average American. UK alone wastes 6.7 million tonnes of food per year. Per capita food produced in developed nations is around 900 kg a year while that in poor nations is just around 450 kg a year. This is the very reason why today, the number of overweight and obese people outnumbers that of malnourished. The average household size may have decreased in developed countries like US or UK, but ironically the average consumption has increased.

Thus, a smaller household in a developed country consumes more than a larger household in a developing country. This happens owing to the fact that each household, with all basic consumer items like televisions, energy, oil, refrigerators, cars and others finds lesser users in a smaller family – and therefore the total cost of these items is divided between lesser number of family members, thus increasing the average cost. A survey by International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in the US found that “single member households spent an average of $774 on residential energy, while the increase for each additional person above two in the household was only $120 to $160.”

The same goes for water. The acute water shortage is a phenomenon that is mostly predominant in developing countries, with 1.5 billion people worldwide suffering from it. The slew of water shortages, as predicted by various scientists, is likely to affect 3 billion people in the next 25 years.

And most of it will have an effect on low and middle income countries, who will find it very difficult to cope with the exploding population. Having said this, it is a rule of thumb that high income countries have a much higher per capita consumption – which makes it most essential that there is effective usage of their water reserves and advanced water management techniques to reduce consumption!

An average person in the developed world consumes 30 to 50 times more water than what is consumed in the developing world. According to UNDP, US leads the way in terms of average water use per person per day (over 550 litres per capita per day), followed by Australia (500 litres), Italy (380 litres) and Japan (375 litres). As against these developed nations leading the table – quite typically – there is a huddle among developing countries at the bottom! At the bottommost of the table is Mozambique (less than 5 litres per capita per day), preceded by Uganda, Rwanda, and Haiti (about 15 litres each per capita per day). If population is a measure, even then US and other developed countries consume more water. With a massive population to look after, China’s average water consumption per person per day is a paltry 86 litres – a misnomer when compared to US or Japan!

The exploding population isn’t only about consumption of water and food – it’s about the sticking point of energy as well! So many wars have been fought, high profile diplomatic endeavours tried, millions made to suffer, regimes overthrown, revolutions fanned – just to satisfy the appetite of wealthy nations’ energy needs! United States is the biggest per capita energy consumer in the world that subsumes 20 per cent of global energy even though it makes up only 5 per cent of the world population.

Although China has tipped US to be the highest energy user, US by far outstrips China in terms of per capita consumption. While for US, the figure for per capita energy consumption in 2009 was 6.95 toe (tonne of oil equivalent), for China it was a mere 1.69 toe! China contributes almost 20 per cent of the global population with 16 per cent of energy consumption, India’s share in the global population is 17 per cent with about 4 per cent of energy usage. While Japan with less than 2 per cent of global population accounts for 5 per cent of consumption, Germany with less than 1 per cent of the population accounts for 4 per cent of energy utilization! That’s the difference of consumption patterns between the developed and developing nations (including emerging economies). The electricity consumption pattern has also evolved in a similar trend with the top four per capita consumers in the world being industrialized nations! Iceland tops the list (31,147.355 kWh per capita) to be followed by Norway, Finland and Canada – while Northern Mariana Islands, Chad, Sierra Leone, and Burundi form the bottom four. US for that matter consumes around 7800 Kgoe (kilograms of oil equivalent) of energy per capita per annum compared to China that consumes 1150 Kgoe per capita per annum. In the same light, countries like Nigeria, Zimbabwe, India, Sudan and Congo consume 780, 750, 520, 480 and 275 Kgoe respectively. Therefore, bigger homes, larger cars, more stores in developed countries lead to not only higher consumption, but also higher wastage of precious resources of energy that in the long run can be too costly for the world!

It takes 10 children in India to match the consumption rate of just 1 child in United States! This again is not all. Given the fact that the developed world’s energy consumption and wastage is far more than that of developing countries, the greenhouse gas emission details also follow the same phenomenon. The per capita greenhouse gas emissions per year in US is 23.5 tonnes while that in China is 5.5 tonnes per capita and in India the figure is merely 1.7 tonnes per capita. Thus, US on a per capita scale emits greenhouse gases that are 4 times China’s and 12 times India’s emissions. On a regional level, America emits 7 times more greenhouse gases than what Asia emits, and 10 times more than what Sub Saharan Africa emits! And this is despite the fact that America’s population is one-fourth that of India’s or China’s.

In the next four decades, the world will add two billion more people, thus the stress on resources will increase. Today, more than 5.5 billion people reside in developing nations and this is the part of the world where the resource crunch can be felt – of course at the cost of 2 billion ‘developed’ people’s obscene consumption and over the top indulgences! It’s time for those 2 billion to learn the merits of a term called sustainable development. And now.

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