Today, bodies washing ashore in Italy, Spain, and Turkey are a daily occurrence, the result of desperate acts by desperate people. And each day Mexicans risk their lives in the Arizona desert trying to reach jobs in the United States. On average, some 100,000 or more Mexicans leave rural areas every year, abandoning plots of land too small or too eroded to make a living. They either head for Mexican cities or try to cross illegally into the United States. Many of those who try to cross the Arizona desert perish in its punishing heat. Since 2001, some 200 bodies have been found along the Arizona border each year.
With the vast majority of the 2.4 billion people to be added to the world by 2050 coming in countries where water tables are already falling, water refugees are likely to become commonplace. They will be most common in arid and semiarid regions where populations are outgrowing the water supply and sinking into hydrological poverty. Villages in northwestern India are being abandoned as aquifers are depleted and people can no longer find water. Millions of villagers in northern and western China and in parts of Mexico may have to move because of a lack of water.
Advancing deserts are squeezing expanding populations into an ever smaller geographic area. Whereas the U.S. Dust Bowl displaced 3 million people, the advancing desert in China’s Dust Bowl provinces could displace tens of millions.
Africa, too, is facing this problem. The Sahara Desert is pushing the populations of Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria northward toward the Mediterranean. In a desperate effort to deal with drought and desertification, Morocco is geographically restructuring its agriculture, replacing grain with less thirsty orchards and vineyards.
In Iran, villages abandoned because of spreading deserts or a lack of water already number in the thousands. In the vicinity of Damavand, a small town within an hour’s drive of Tehran, 88 villages have been abandoned. And as the desert takes over in Nigeria, farmers and herders are forced to move, squeezed into a shrinking area of productive land. Desertification refugees typically end up in cities, many in squatter settlements. Others migrate abroad.
In Latin America, deserts are expanding and forcing people to move in both Brazil and Mexico. In Brazil, some 66 million hectares of land are affected, much of it concentrated in the country’s northeast. In Mexico, with a much larger share of arid and semiarid land, the degradation of cropland now extends over 59 million hectares.
While desert expansion and water shortages are now displacing millions of people, rising seas promise to displace far greater numbers in the future, given the concentration of the world’s population in low-lying coastal cities and rice-growing river deltas. The numbers could eventually reach the hundreds of millions, offering yet another powerful reason for stabilizing both climate and population.
In the end, the issue with rising seas is whether governments are strong enough to withstand the political and economic stress of relocating large numbers of people while suffering heavy coastal losses of housing and industrial facilities.
During this century we must deal with the effects of trends—rapid population growth, advancing deserts, and rising seas—that we set in motion during the last century. Our choice is a simple one: reverse these trends or risk being overwhelmed by them.
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Adapted from Chapter 2, “Population Pressure: Land and Water,” in Lester R. Brown, Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2009), available on-line at www.earthpolicy.org/index.php?/books/pb4
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