July 2001: CIA: Long Term Global Demographic Trends: Reshaping the Geopolitical Landscape [PDF]. Source: Central Intelligence Agency Library [PDF].

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This paper identifies the factors that will be most important in shaping the worldwide demographic landscape in 2020 and beyond. It examines how societies are coping with the broad range of demographic challenges and assesses what conditions may be key to transforming demographic trends into security issues of interest to the United States. Global demographic trends will have far-reaching consequences for the key elements of national power: economic, military, and political within the larger global community. Allies and rivals alike will cope differently— some better than others. Reforms require advance notice and gradual implementation that, given the immediacy of many of the world’s demographic challenges, leave no room for complacency.

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Key Findings:

  • Our allies in the industrialized world will face an unprecedented crisis of aging.
  • The aging challenge could reduce Japan’s economic power.
  • An older Europe will be less willing to face up to global hotspots.
  • Key potential US rivals—China and Russia—face demographic challenges:
    • For China, a large and growing urban population coupled with a looming aging population could mean slower economic growth, increased political instability, and perhaps significant cultural changes.
    • For Russia, an unhealthy declining population—especially among working-age males—could impact economic growth and domestic stability, vulnerabilities that internal political groups or other states could seek to exploit.
  • As other industrialized countries deal with aging crises, the United States will be expected to assume a larger share of the burden for increased financial and humanitarian assistance, peacekeeping, and military interventions around the world.
  • The burden may increase as demographic factors heighten existing tensions and exacerbate other factors that precipitate conflict.
  • These pressures will build in regions of the world, like Sub-Saharan Africa, that have traditionally not been at the center of US policy interest.
  • The rise and fall of civilizations are linked to demographic trends:
    • Great Britain’s population/employment crisis in the 18th and 19th centuries contributed to out-migration and innovation, which eventually led to technological breakthroughs and the Industrial Revolution.
  • Population growth has contributed to revolutions and expansionism:
    • Population growth in 18th-century France played a key role in the French Revolution.
    • Japanese imperialism from the 1870s to 1945 was fueled, in part, by its rise in population.
  • Dramatic population declines have created power vacuums that new ethnic groups exploit.
  • Differential population growth rates between neighbors have historically altered conventional balances of power.
  • Such demographic imbalances could trigger future tensions particularly in countries that have land borders and relatively even conventional capabilities.
  • Areas for future tensions include the borders between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and Malaysia and Singapore, which harbor historical enmity and are projected to have widening demographic disparities.


Health and Environmental Aftershocks:

  • The infectious disease burden will exacerbate demographic problems in the developing world.
  • In the developed world, lifestyle-induced diseases are rising, a major factor in health-care costs for the elderly.
  • Ninety-five percent of people living with HIV and/or AIDS live in the developing world.
  • Seventy percent of those live in Sub-Saharan Africa.
  • HIV prevalence in Africa is expected to increase over the next 10 years.
  • Prospects for progress, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa, are dim:
    • Infection levels remain high even in countries that have instituted HIV/AIDS education and prevention efforts.
  • Environmental degradation will increase in developing and transitioning countries that have already experienced some of the world’s worst environmental problems.
  • Environmental pressures often contribute to conflict.

Environmental issues disrupt population projections in ways that are often not readily apparent:

  • For example, in Russia, 70 years of treating air, land, and water as “free goods” has left a severely degraded environment and high levels of pollution that are likely to have a long-lasting impact on the health, including reproductive health, of the population.

Demographic challenges in many key countries will increase environmental degradation in areas that have already experienced some of the world’s worst environmental problems. Russia, Mexico, India, and China are having the most notable problems:

  • Russia’s vast but aged defense and industrial physical infrastructure is deteriorating at an alarming rate, and Russians have demonstrated scant willingness to allocate suffi cient resources to address the safety issues. The spectacular Ostankino TV tower fire in 2000 is a visible reminder of this poor state of affairs.
  • The infrastructure of the Mexico City Metropolitan Area (MCMA) is already inadequate, and population growth will only worsen the urban environmental problems. The city’s aquifer—seriously damaged by large-scale subsidence—cannot keep pace with the water requirements of its 20 million residents. Land subsidence has made the city prone to more floods and has damaged its infrastructure. In addition, the lack of waste water treatment and hazardous waste controls in the MCMA threaten the aquifer and distribution system with microbiological and chemical contamination.

Population growth, industrialization, poverty, unenforced environmental laws, inconsistent governance, and a focus on economic development have stressed India’s environment with significant economic, political, and societal consequences. It is not uncommon in any given year for thousands of Indians to perish and hundreds of thousands to suffer economic losses from disasters.

  • Seven of the world’s 10 most polluted cities are in China, and Chinese scientists estimate that 30 to 40 percent of the country is affected by acid rain. Excessive logging contributes to frequent disastrous floods, and the World Bank estimates that almost every river and lake in China is polluted to some extent.

Population growth in developing countries will continue to increase the use of, and in some cases deplete, natural resources such as water and forests. It will also adversely impact the environment by:

  • Increasing pressure on arable land, which in turn can lead to soil erosion and increased siltation and flooding.
  • Increasing the use of fertilizers and pesticides, leading to water and soil contamination.
  • Encouraging the growth of urban squatter settlements, which can contribute to water and air pollution and provide a breeding ground for disease.

Increasing industrial and transport activities that contribute to air and water pollution. Such pressures, according to academic Thomas Homer-Dixon, often contribute to violent intergroup conflict. For example, demographic pressures on natural resources can combine with skewed resource-distribution policies to promote increasing friction between socioeconomic classes.

  • Water availability is likely to become one of the most pressing and contentious resource issues of this century.
  • Rising populations will also lead to accelerating destruction of forests
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Freshwater Scarcity

Global water consumption is rising quickly, and water availability is likely to become one of the most pressing and contentious resource issues of this century, according to the World Resources Institute (WRI), a prominent US environmental NGO. This situation will only be exacerbated by population growth. Water scarcities and allocation will pose significant challenges to governments in the Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and northern China, with regional tensions over water heightened by 2015:

  • By 2025, 48 countries containing 3 billion people will face freshwater shortages; 20 countries of the Near East and North Africa face the worst prospects. In those areas, water supplies could run out by 2100 if per capita consumption and excessive use in agriculture are not controlled, according to the UN Environment Program (UNEP) and other experts.
  • A contractor report lists 17 water basins with the greatest potential for disputes in the next 10 years because they lack or have inadequate international water management entities.
  • High rates of population growth in several strategically important Middle Eastern states, for example, have increased pressure on already meager water supplies, many of which already originate outside their borders, making them more vulnerable to the “water weapon.”


Over the past 50 years nearly half of the world’s original forest cover has been lost, and each year another 16 million hectares of virgin forest are cut, bulldozed, or burned, according to the UN Food and Agricultural Organization. The pressure of increasing populations will continue to challenge all countries with remaining tropical forests, where about 60 percent of the world’s population growth will occur this decade. Because many in developing countries depend on wood for cooking and heating and need to clear more land for crops, forests will continue to be destroyed at an alarming rate. By 2025, an estimated 4.6 billion people will live in countries with less than 0.1 hectare of forest cover per capita, according to Population Action International, compared to 1.7 billion people today:

  • Deforestation rates in some countries increased from 1990 to 1995 despite a surge of public awareness about the loss of forests. Deforestation in the Amazon doubled from 1994 to 1995 before declining in 1996, and forest fi res in Indonesia and the Amazon took a heavy toll in 1997 and 1998. Tropical forests are vanishing at the rate of 250 acres per minute, according to the US Department of State’s Bureau of Oceans, International Environmental and Scientific Affairs.
  • Although deforestation has been halted and even reversed in parts of Europe and North America, demand for wood and wood products in developed countries will continue to put pressure on forests there and, in particular, on those in developing countries.

World food production will be sufficient to meet the world’s growing population but:

  • Production could increase environmental problems.
  • Land degradation will negate productivity advances.
  • Poor infrastructure and distribution systems will lead to malnourishment in parts of Sub-Saharan Africa.
  • Developing countries’ energy use will increase, causing higher emissions of greenhouse gases, which are likely to surpass the emissions of developed countries.

Soil Deterioration

Population growth in developing countries will increase stress on soils from erosion and poor fertilization and irrigation practices. Lower classes are farming barren tracts to survive, which increases environmental damage, leading to a vicious downward cycle of productivity and opportunity. Land degradation already has reduced fertility and agricultural potential in many parts of the world, negating advances made through expanding agricultural areas and increasing productivity, according to UNEP:

  • Overall food production will be adequate to feed the world’s growing population through at least 2015, but poor infrastructure and distribution, political instability, and chronic poverty will lead to malnourishment in parts of Sub-Saharan Africa.
  • The WRI predicts that, without a transition to more resource-effi cient and less toxic farming methods, it will be diffi cult to meet world food needs in the future without increasing agriculture’s environmental burden.
  • With continued population growth, the amount of biologically available (“fixed”) nitrogen, for example, may double over the next 25 years, increasing the current excess. Over the past 50 years, excessive nitrogen, principally from fertilizers (some 86 percent), human sewage, and the burning of fossil fuels began to overwhelm the global nitrogen cycle, with a range of ill effects from reduced soil fertility to eutrophication in lakes, rivers, and coastal estuaries, according to the WRI.

Climate Change

If developing countries follow the model of developed countries, their energy use—spurred by population and economic growth—will continue and with it greater emissions of greenhouse gases, according to the OECD. The developed world produces some 60 percent of emissions today, but the developing world will be producing 60 percent of them by 2015, according to the UNDP:

  • With more frequent droughts and fl oods resulting from rising global temperatures, there is additional potential for increased adverse health consequences like increased incidences of water-borne diseases and a resurgence and spread of infectious diseases, particularly in the developing world.
  • The latest (early 2001) projections of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change indicate an average surface temperature increase of between 1.4 and 5.8 degrees Celsius and a sea level rise of between 9 and 88 cm by 2100 unless immediate steps are taken to limit emissions. In 2025, 12 of the 19 megacities in developing countries will be located on coasts and will be particularly vulnerable to sea level rise.

Natural or manmade environmental disasters are likely to cause more loss of life and economic disruption because populations are burgeoning near vulnerable areas:

  • For the top 10 most disaster-prone countries of the Asia-Pacific region, there were a total of 1,312 disasters during 1966-90, which killed 1.7 million people and affected more than 2 billion.
  • In India, nuclear power reactors are already contaminating surrounding soil areas with dangerous levels of cesium. Similar effects are expected as Russia tries to extend the lives of several of its aging nuclear power reactors.

Natural or Manmade Environmental Disasters:

These events are likely to cause more loss of life and economic disruption because populations are burgeoning near vulnerable areas or facilities— such as nuclear reactors, active faults, volcanoes, coastlines, and rivers subject to flooding—and in countries with few resources for disaster mitigation:

  • For the top 10 most disaster-prone countries of the Asia-Pacific region— Australia, Bangladesh, China, India, Indonesia, Iran, Japan, New Zealand, Philippines, and Vietnam—there were a total of 1,312 disasters during the 25 years during 1966-90, which killed 1.7 million people and affected more than 2 billion, according to the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters.
  • In India, nuclear power reactors are already contaminating the surrounding soil with dangerous levels of cesium. Management that tolerates poor operating practices and measures its level of success in terms of building new projects rather than running existing ones safely supports the notion that contamination will most likely continue. Similar effects are expected in Russia, which will be forced to try to extend the life expectancies of several aging nuclear power reactors because it does not have suffi cient alternative electrical generation.
  • Turkey, Honduras, and others recently victimized by geophysical hazard or extreme weather events have done little in the aftermath to disperse vulnerable populations, thus remaining at risk of repeat catastrophes. Istanbul’s 8 million inhabitants live along the same fault that caused the earthquakes in 1999.


Three Global Scenarios:

At the conference we developed three scenarios of what the world might look like in 50 years given the demographic trends:

  • Fertility Drives the Trends.
  • Orderly Progress.
  • What Can Go Wrong Will Go Wrong.