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Population does matter in our security stakes

By Peter Curson - posted Monday, 22 September 2014

Population is of key importance to Australia’s security in the 21st century but in many ways the link has been insufficiently appreciated by government agencies. In part this reflects a preoccupation with traditional definitions of security such as the dynamics of international relations, the defense of national territorial integrity and the protection of citizens from external threats. In part it also reflects the overriding concern for the physical manifestations of insecurity rather than unravelling the causative processes involved.

The Australian National Security Statement released in 2008 makes only passing reference to the demographic factors underpinning many of the security challenges facing Australia. But population has always been linked to security. The movement of people, for example, has often transformed the social, economic, political and demographic structure of regions and states, transported diseases across space threatening our health security and on occasions undermined the viability of whole states.

Population growth and size allied to rapid rural-urban migration, limited economic growth and opportunity, and the emergence of a large disadvantaged and dissatisfied body of urban youth, has frequently been seen as contributing to intra-state and inter-state conflict. Rapid population growth can also bring in its train the degradation of natural resources such as fresh water, forests and arable land as well as initiate conflict over dwindling resources.


The 21st century is also witnessing unprecedented urban growth. The Asia Pacific region is the fastest growing urbanizing region in the world. China provides a good example.

In 1950 barely 12% of China’s population lived in urban areas. Today the figure is fast approaching 50%. Urban areas have always been the crucible of political, social and economic change and there is little doubt that urban growth is outpacing the capacity of most states in our region to create jobs, provide adequate housing and develop adequate health and welfare programs. 

Within the next 20 or so years half the population of the Asia Pacific will be living in urban areas and we will see the emergence of at least 10 megacities with populations of over 14 million. The 21st century will also witness an unprecedented increase in life expectancy and ageing and as the numbers of the old increase we can expect health and welfare costs to rise substantially.

Given that health care costs for the elderly are roughly 3-4 times greater than for the rest of the population it is possible that countries like Australia will have to dedicate between 15 and 20% of their GDP to meet such costs in the future. And not only Australia will be affected. By 2050 there will be approximately 860 million people aged over 65 in our region ranging from less than 3% of Papua-New Guinea’s population to well over 30% of Japans.

Migration has also emerged as one of the major global security issues of the 21st century. Every day millions of people move in search of jobs, education, freedom or a better future. Such movements within countries and across borders are a potent force in shaping population size, age and sex structure and social and economic conditions. Migration brings together people from diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds, often to live and work together for the first time and when allied to perceptions of disadvantage and marginalization as well inequality in the access of jobs, housing and health care, can result in feelings of exclusion and bitterness.

Recent concern for the effects of the so-called youth bulge throughout parts of Africa and the Middle East demonstrate this only too well.


Population and human behavior also play a critical role in the emergence, re-emergence, diffusion and geographical distribution of both ‘new’ and older infectious diseases in Australia and throughout the Asia-Pacific region. SARS and Swine Flu demonstrated only too well how quickly infections can spread around the world accompanying human movement and ebola threatens to follow the same route. In Australia the movement of migrants previously exposed to TB and Dengue to settle permanently provides another example.

And what about food security? There seems little doubt that over the next few decades demographic forces will provide a major challenge to our region’s food security. The FAO estimates that about 37 countries in the world will face a food crisis over the next 20 years and at least one third of these will be in our region. Continued population growth allied to rural-urban migration will see substantial changes in demand and food preference as well as the loss of key agricultural land. Continuing migration to towns and cities will also greatly reduce the numbers of people engaged in subsistence agriculture.

One result of all this has seen many countries seek to lease or purchase large tracts of agricultural land in Africa and Latin America to grow crops for food or biofuels. This so-called ‘land grab’ has been seen by some as thinly disguised neo-colonialism with minimal returns for local populations. For others it is seen as a critical part of every countries overriding concern to provide enough food for all their inhabitants.

To anticipate and react to possible security issues as well as to maintain our health, wellbeing and stability, we need to seriously appreciate the links that exist between population growth, population movement, distribution and structure, ethnicity, national identity and social, political and environmental issues and state stability, and in particular how the interplay between these variables can contribute to, or produce, disruptive or conflict situations.

All this requires the government and security agencies to possess the tools and expertise to embrace an interdisciplinary approach and to fully appreciate how such things interact and affect our security.

Up until now consideration of these issues usually fell within the purview of a myriad of government departments rather than being the responsibility of a single body charged with developing a comprehensive and integrated security policy. In the final analysis there is a pressing need to appreciate what is happening in our region as well as at home, that security is people-centered, and that population dynamics play an important role in our overall security.

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About the Author

Peter Curson is Emeritus Professor of Population and Health in the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences at Macquarie University.

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