Define the concept of carrying capacity of an ecosystem as relevant to an environment. Explain how understanding this concept is vital while planning for sustainable development of a region. (15 Marks)

Mentors Comments:
  • Define carrying capacity.
  • Mention how carrying capacity is violated through modern development practices.
  • Highlight how it can be balanced with development needs and how that protects ecology.


The Earth is currently experiencing a 6th mass extinction age primarily caused by anthropogenic factors. Earth Overshoot Day shows how humans are consuming much more resources than what Earth can regenerate in a year. It shows humans may be going beyond the carrying capacity of Earth as an ecosystem.

What is Carrying Capacity?

Carrying capacity is the maximum population size that an ecosystem can sustainably support without degrading the ecosystem. Deaths and long term damage to an ecosystem occurs when a population exceeds the carrying capacity of its ecosystem. 

Disease, competition, predator-prey interaction, resource use and the number of populations in an ecosystem all affect carrying capacity.

Carrying Capacity and Sustainable Development

Our Common Future, also known as the Brundtland Report,1987 defines Sustainable Development  as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” This idea presupposes development within the confines of carrying capacity of ecosystems.

Why understanding Carrying Capacity is vital for Planning

    • Economic Planning: Through careful analysis of resource availability and requirements of economy appropriate strategies can be developed for optimal use of resources while minimising adverse ecological impacts.
    • Population Control: based on the carrying capacity of a region. For example, fertile Gangetic plains can support a higher population but the same population growth is unsustainable in the Himalayan region. Thus population policy has to be tweaked accordingly.
    • Biodiversity Conservation: National Parks and Wildlife sanctuaries need a balance between animal population and prey base/ resources available. Animal population beyond the carrying capacity of forests leads to man-animal conflicts.
    • Agriculture Management: agriculture practices must reflect the carrying capacity of the soil water-scarce regions growing water-intensive crops is a recipe for ecological disaster.
    • Urban Planning: Every urban area must provide some basic urban amenities. Growth of population beyond carrying capacity of Urban services leads to development of slums, pollution, inadequate waste and sewage disposal, etc. It diminishes the living standards in urban areas and has long term health impacts on inhabitants.
    • Food security: Today we have more population that our food resources human feed adequately. We have already passed our carrying capacity, but if it continues further, we are in danger of widespread food shortage.

 What needs to be done

  • Urban planning should include a study on carrying capacity of the city and adjoining region.
  • Awareness creation among people to reduce wastage(to avert crisis due to carrying capacity)
  • Protection of natural forests (which have high carrying capacity)

Exponential growth of world population today would eventually bring equilibrium between the resources and population as shown in Limits to Growth model. Planners need to start development with carrying capacity at the foundation of future growth model to ensure quality of life for future generations

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