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Population Growth and Migration: The Challenge of Resource Scarcity

Published 07 Oct 2017
Damian Meduri

Entrepreneur Dick Smith recently launched a $1 million dollar advertising campaign, to spread the message that the Australian government has to cut the number of immigrants arriving to our shores. The call has reignited the debate surrounding Australia’s immigration policies and proposed carrying capacity. Smith’s message is that recent years of increased migration puts Australia at risk of having an unsustainable population, with millions of them living in poverty. Migration trends are increasing both outward and within countries. Currently, there is an all-time high of about 244 million migrants residing in a country other than the one where they were born. A core reason for this is the global increase in population, rather than conflict.

Global population is projected to reach 9.7 billion by 2050. Most of this growth will be in the developing world; China and India together already account for over 3 billion. However, the region with the highest birth rate today is Africa, where women have a birth rate of 4.7. These statistics are alarming due to the already precarious environmental and sustainability issues that exist in the region. Despite massive development aid designed to incentivise economic growth in the region, neo-Malthusian levels of famine and drought remain a possibility. Resource scarcity is compounded by problems such as desertification and the population pressures. There are already up to 30 million people currently at risk in East Africa, and with this birth rate that number can be expected to rise.

The relationship between population growth and resource scarcity is a key driver of migration that is often overlooked in public debates surrounding migration. As the population grows, the resources that are needed to sustain them also increases. This leads to attempts by armed groups to achieve resource security, and is a major underlying source of conflict in many developing countries. Countries neighbouring conflict areas in the Middle East, such as Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey, have become the main hosts for migrants, placing increased pressure on their own resources. Turkey alone has an estimated 3 million Syrian refugees. As a result outward migration trends are increasingly visible as they try to secure personal safety in European countries.

Internal migration is also a by-product of population growth. By 2050, it is estimated that 66% of the world’s population will live in cities. The significance of urbanisation is a structural change in resource distribution. As urban populations rise, the share of resources for rural populations falls. Electricity, food, water, and housing are redirected to centralised locations. Cities and informal settlements continue to sprawl and there is less agricultural labour compared to the number of urban residents. Urbanisation in developing nations needs a special focus because it is different from urbanisation of most developed nations. In developing nations this urbanisation is not necessarily linked with manufacturing jobs. Instead several major resource export countries have an 80% urbanisation rate. In these contexts, cities may not offer formal employment, however migrants may still choose urban centres due to support networks available within them. As a result, undocumented migration rises, fuelling inequality and subsequently leading to the creation of high population density slums. A lack of a well-developed industrial sector then stands to stagnate growth while resource consumption and population both rise. Reversing this trend by decentralising the population and redirecting investment to regional areas are key initiatives that can tackle this problem.

Due to our geography, Australia remains largely removed from these migration patterns and holds a relatively small population compared to our landmass. Our natural ocean border assists in preventing undocumented migration and urban density is among the lowest in the world. However even with our population of around 24 million, we still have a comparative poverty rate of 13.3%, highlighting the importance of resource scarcity and governance. Dick Smith’s primary concern relates to Australian resource scarcity in the face of population growth. Current projections place Perth’s water demand to exceed supply by 85 billion litres by 2030. While we have natural buffers in place that inhibit irregular migration, the sheer number of movements occurring globally indicate that an increase in the Australian population is inevitable.  Focusing on the political dialogue of migration fails to address the core issue of population growth and so efforts must be made in advance for this growth.

Ultimately, population growth’s effect on migration will increase due to the multi-faceted problems that are associated with it such as urbanisation, conflict, and poverty.  Fragile states, particularly those in East Africa, are maintaining high birth-rates coupled with poor resource security. The resulting famine and conflict are drivers of migration. So where does that leave Australia and our populace? Instead of the discussion on severe migration restrictions, we need to better invest in development in regions outside of our cities and consider greater infrastructure with a focus on food and water security as the global population grows. Failing to adequately prepare for this will be to our detriment.

Damian Meduri is an intern with the Australian Institute if International Affairs NSW. He is in his final year of International Studies/Development Studies at UNSW. As a recipient of the Westpac Bicentennial Asian Exchange Scholarship, Damian spent a year abroad in Shanghai, China where he also undertook leadership roles in the Australian China Youth Association, which aims to foster the relationship between Australia and its Asian counterparts. Back home, he has also actively participated in initiatives such as Project Hope UNSW, in order to promote and assist the education of children living in rural parts of China. Damian also has a working proficiency of Mandarin Chinese which provides him with a deeper understanding of the Australia-China relationship.