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Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Interaction of Environment and Population in the Arab Spring

Thomas Friedman recently had a very interesting op-ed piece in the New York Times discussing some of the potentially important underlying causes of the Arab Spring. He focuses attention on the environment. The Middle East is not an area that has the natural resources to easily accommodate a large population. Yet, the population is growing, and the environment is deteriorating. The interaction of these two things is undoubtedly at the root of the Arab Spring. Importantly, the situation is not likely to be getting better any time soon.
Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed, the executive director of the Institute for Policy Research and Development in London, writing in The Beirut Daily Star in February, pointed out that 12 of the world’s 15 most water-scarce countries — Algeria, Libya, Tunisia, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain, Israel and Palestine — are in the Middle East, and after three decades of explosive population growth these countries are “set to dramatically worsen their predicament. Although birth rates are falling, one-third of the overall population is below 15 years old, and large numbers of young women are reaching reproductive age, or soon will be.” A British Defense Ministry study, he added, “has projected that by 2030 the population of the Middle East will increase by 132 percent — generating an unprecedented ‘youth bulge.’ ”
As Lester Brown, the president of the Earth Policy Institute and author of “World on the Edge,” notes, 20 years ago, using oil-drilling technology, the Saudis tapped into an aquifer far below the desert to produce irrigated wheat, making themselves self-sufficient. But now almost all that water is gone, and Saudi wheat production is, too. So the Saudis are investing in farm land in Ethiopia and Sudan, but that means they will draw more Nile water for irrigation away from Egypt, whose agriculture-rich Nile Delta is already vulnerable to any sea level rise and saltwater intrusion.
If you ask “what are the real threats to our security today,” said Brown, “at the top of the list would be climate change, population growth, water shortages, rising food prices and the number of failing states in the world. As that list grows, how many failed states before we have a failing global civilization, and everything begins to unravel?”

There is an increasing amount of research on the effects of climate change on migration--environmental refugee movements. To be sure, a lot of people have migrated out of the Middle East, but another recent story in the New Scientist quotes David Thomas of the University of Oxford reminding us that most people will not migrate, and it is the people who stay behind who bear the full brunt of the interaction of population growth and environmental degradation. This would certainly buttress Friedman's argument about the Arab Spring.

1 comment:

  1. This was a great article and I have really seen it personally here in Israel. Indeed, the water question is at least as difficult as the land question when it comes to the possible resolution of the eternal conflict here re Palestine.

    I was looking at some stats from the Pew Research Forum ( on estimated migration of Muslims to Europe through 2030, and they struck me as being way too low. One of the reasons is that I see emigration from countries like Yemen and Egypt and Pakistan to Europe increasing substantially as those countries prove less and less able to providing food and water for their people.

    Any thoughts on those Pew figures?