Planet 7 Billion: Five Crisis Hotspots to Watch

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People navigate through the waterways of the Makoko slum in Lagos, Nigeria on September 29, 2011. (Photo: Pius Utomi Ekpei / AFP / Getty Images)

The following is a guest post from TIME contributor Joe Jackson.

As the planet’s population climbs towards a new U.N.-projected peak of 10.1 billion by the turn of the next century, competition for resources within and between states will likely intensify. So too, goes the logic, will the number of resulting conflicts over oil, fresh water and precious raw materials. Indeed, recent conflicts, such as the on-going turmoil in Darfur, are cited as ominous harbingers of a future where poor countries face increasing squabbles over scant resources. But, say experts, that thinking is limited. Wars are almost always sparked by a complex web of factors, in part related to resources, but also rooted in ethnicity, religion and other realities on the ground, says Alex Evans of New York University’s Center on International Cooperation. As such, predictions of an explosion in resource-driven conflicts may be misleading. “Wars rarely have just one cause,” he says. “Instead, it’s best to think of resource scarcity as a threat multiplier.” With that in mind, here are five potential flash points:

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1. The Horn of Africa

Over the next 100 years, this politically unstable, drought-prone region will face considerable challenges from climate change and population growth. By 2100, for instance, Somalia will have nearly eight times as many people as it does today. Neighbor Ethiopia, which sent troops over their shared border in 2006 , will also see sustained population growth. Simmering tensions between the two countries—and historical strife between Ethiopia and neighboring Eritrea, which led to war in 1998— could emerge as a major threat. Water scarcity may also be a source of conflict. Meanwhile, Somali fishermen who can no longer earn a living due to over-fishing have turned to piracy in their droves, threatening tankers that carry one-third of the world’s fuel supply.

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2. Pakistan

Already the world’s sixth most populous nation with 174 million people, Pakistan is set to peak at over 285 million some time around 2065. Such growth will place enormous pressure on this fractious, flood-prone country ridden with ethnic, sectarian, and class-based rivalries. The country’s volatile security situation amplifies the sense of crisis, with insurgency raging along the border with Afghanistan and tensions with nuclear-armed archenemy India over disputed Kashmir likely to continue. Himalayan Kashmir is the source of Pakistan’s important rivers, including the Indus, which irrigates about three-quarters of the country’s farmland. As climate change speeds up glacial melt, the situation has the potential to destabilize Pakistan’s water supplies.

3. Sudan, South Sudan and Chad

A 2006 U.S. Institute for Peace report referred to these countries, alongside Central African Republic, as a “triangle of instability.” Long-tormented by rebellions and civil wars, the prospect of future conflict within and between these states is high as their populations rise dramatically. Poor governance and widespread poverty coupled with militarization and regional rivalries provides a combustible mix. Global warming is leaving the region increasingly vulnerable to severe drought while expanding agriculture has reduced the surface area of Lake Chad —once one of Africa’s largest wetlands and relied upon by 20 million people —by as much as 90%. The recent division of Sudan, with the bulk of the oil fields in the South, is a further recipe for instability. Continued strife on Chad’s doorstep in Darfur, which led to near-war between the two countries in recent years, could create conflict again.

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4. Nigeria

Nigeria’s population has quadrupled in the last 50 years to 150 million. The U.N estimates that by 2050, 390 million people will call the country home. Almost half of Nigerians don’t have access to things like potable water and sanitation. Divisions between Christians, who live predominantly in the richer, more industrialized south and Muslims, who live in the less developed north which lags in agricultural and infrastructure investment, are in part fueled by resource disparities between the regions. As a Council on Foreign Relations op-ed earlier this year noted, competition for access to these resources, especially oil, exasperates simmering tensions. In the case of the Delta, this has already developed into a full-blown insurgency.

5. India

The second most populous country on earth (expected to become number one by 2030) is the proverbial hotbed of “a million mutinies” and has fraught relations with neighbors. Maoist insurgents, called Naxalites, continue to lead a widespread insurrection Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has called India’s single biggest security threat. The rebels comprise landless laborers and tribal people, in places like the mineral-rich forests of Chhattisgarh and the mining belt of Jharkhand, who do not share in the wealth generated from these resources. Meanwhile, various ethnic groups in the country’s northeast wage decades-old rebellions, again partly fueled by grievances over natural resources and unanswered calls for autonomy. An Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses article in May this year concluded that “the sense of economic resources being exploited or the threat to exploitation exaggerated amongst the locals has provoked conflict in the region.” As India’s huge numbers swell to a projected 1.7 billion around 2065, just as climate change is expected to cause increased floods and potentially imperil agricultural stability, these conflicts may only worsen.

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-With reporting from Erica Ho.