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Why should rural depopulation be avoided? 

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The depopulation of rural areas goes beyond small towns being abandoned, as it also affects the environment and people’s quality of life.

More than just a few state governments are concerned about the depopulation of their rural areas and the continuing exodus toward large urban environments. According to a report by Julius Baer, the world’s rural population currently stands at 47 percent, although forecasts indicate that this percentage will have fallen to 30 percent by 2050. This will mean that some 6.7 billion people will live in increasingly populated cities.

However, the situation in some areas is already more extreme. For example, in Europe, only 25 percent of inhabitants currently reside in rural areas, while in North America the figure drops to 17 percent.

These figures have a number of negative consequences, which will be outlined below. The UN itself has therefore addressed the problem in one of the Sustainable Development Goals (specifically SDG 11), which states that there must be a balance between urban and rural environments, because only then can greater sustainability in all such environments be achieved.

A great deal of work lies ahead

In response to these recommendations/requests, meticulous work must be done to halt the ongoing (and, for the time being, irreparable) rural depopulation. Not only should this work focus on municipalities where very few people live and are set to disappear, but it must also focus on other larger towns and smaller cities that are far away from large urban areas, as these kinds of populations are also losing inhabitants.

A prime example of this can be seen in Spain, where municipalities with less than 1,000 inhabitants have experienced an exodus of some 142,000 residents over the past two decades. So much so that if they accounted for 4 percent of the population in 2000, that percentage had fallen to 3.1 percent in 2018.

Impact on the rural environment

Quality of life decreases. People who are seeing rural centers empty are exposed to a loss in the basic services offered (health, education, food, etc.), as the councils themselves are losing their budgets. Moreover, when the depopulation depletes, job prospects vanish, forcing young people to leave in search of a job they will not find in the “countryside.” This loss of economic dynamism leads to impoverishment of the remaining population and the municipalities themselves, which in turn, lose their cultural heritage.

Crop abandonment. Rural depopulation not only causes loss of wealth, but local food is also no longer produced and the countryside is “left to waste.” This situation leads to a kind of rural desertification caused by the break of an ecosystem that had been in place for years, maybe even centuries. Such changes also affect the local fauna, which can even disappear.

Environmental degradation. Decreased agricultural and livestock production resulting from rural depopulation means that food that was previously locally sourced must be imported, which results in increased pollution from transportation.

Fire. Rural depopulation results in the emergence of all types of vegetation in many areas. This is more pronounced in forested areas, because when farmers and ranchers abandon their activities, the countryside is not taken care of and livestock no longer graze. This entails a greater risk of fire and also endangers the ability to control it in time, which leads to greater desertification.

Problems in the city

Despite the serious consequences that depopulation has for rural areas, we must not overlook that problems also arise in cities as a result of the constant arrival of new inhabitants.

Overpopulation. The first such problem is the increase in the number of inhabitants per square kilometer, i.e. overpopulation, which makes it difficult for public administrations to provide services that are essential for the population’s well-being.

Price increases. Increased housing demand also leads to rising rent. This is linked to a generally higher cost of living than in rural areas and relatively low wages due to the extensive supply of constantly arriving workers.

Lower quality of life. The above problems result in a worse quality of life, as happens in rural areas, with the added factor that people living in large cities are exposed to more pollution. It comes as no surprise that around 70 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions come from its streets. It’s therefore no wonder that the World Health Organization affirmed in 2016 that nine out of ten people residing in large cities breathed air that did not meet the minimum quality guidelines that the WHO itself considers not harmful to the body.

Higher environmental impact. As noted, increased pollution is constant in urban areas. The arrival of new inhabitants and the increase of the urbanized area is a major problem that must be overcome if both the environment and citizens’ health are to be safeguarded. This is why all kinds of sustainable city projects have been implemented to address this undesirable trend if climate change is to be curbed and inequalities between people are to be reduced.

Finding solutions

The effect of rural depopulation therefore goes far beyond some villages ending up being abandoned (which in itself is oftentimes a tragedy), as it affects both the environment and people’s quality of life. This has led authorities to draft projects that, firstly, prevent mass emigration and, secondly, repopulate areas that have seen population numbers decline (usually with a very high average age).

Given that the problem has not yet been addressed (although in some countries it seems to have slowed down), proposals tend to focus on certain crucial points.

– The first is diversification in economic sectors, i.e. we must go beyond agriculture as a livelihood to revitalize a particular area. This does not mean that farming activities should not be recovered; rather, diversity must increase to attract businesses and workers.

Technological improvements. Another aspect that is essential for boosting employment in rural areas is improved connection, i.e. good Internet bandwidth is needed to enable mass use of technology. This can also attract people who have the option to work remotely and who choose to work in a healthier, quieter environment than the big city environment.

Government support. Any measure must obviously be supported by the governments of each region or country, which must offer their support through initiatives that encourage employment and economic activities in areas that are in constant decline.