[Solved] 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. (UPSC GS-3 Mains 2019)

In ecological terms, the carrying capacity of an ecosystem is the size of the population that can be supported indefinitely upon the available resources and services of that ecosystem. India’s rapid growth of population which is expected to surpass China by 2024 according to a report by United Nations Population division.

  • 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.
  • Already, world’s more than 17% of population thrives on 2.4% of the Indian mainland. There is a rising concern regarding ecosystem collapse in India hence it becomes vital top consider carrying capacity of an ecosystem while planning for sustainable development of a region.

 Carrying capacity of an ecosystem as an anchor for planning sustainable development of a region Living within the limits of an ecosystem depends on three factors:

  • the amount of resources available in the ecosystem,
  • the size of the population, and
  • the amount of resources each individual is consuming.

 • The first concept suggests that there should be optimum utilization of resources in an ecosystem which must be based on its per capita use. This can be used for micro-planning and as resources are fixed and limited, limitation on population growth rate can drive society to develop in a better way.

 • Size of population matters during planning as any resource can’t resist its overutilization. Excessive and over use of natural and manmade resources reduces its life period. For example: In Indian mega cities such as Delhi, Mumbai and Chennai excessive use of ground water resources andland resources have led to decline in water table. Recent water shortage in Chennai and floods in Mumbai are fine examples of it. Heavy traffic congestion and air pollution are also result of overpopulation which are exceeding carrying capacity of an ecosystem.

 • Overconsumption of resources by individuals in a society also affects sustainable development of a region. Commercialization of residential colonies by opening small factories leads to depletion and pollution of ground water table. Air pollution caused by these units are beyond the selfsustaining criteria of the environment.

 • Concentration of resources in India is a major problem. It has led to inequality and kept the Indian society away from inclusive development. Hence, planning must concentrate on limiting overconsumption by individuals in a society to check exceeding the carrying capacity of the ecosystem.

 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)
  • Sustainable development, which entails the maximum use of resources without damaging the system’s regenerative capacity, has a definite role to play in future policy planning. Sustainability requires managing all households — individual, community, national, and global — in ways that ensure that our economy and society can continue to exist without destroying the natural environment on which we all depend.
  • Population Control: The notion that resource limitation must eventually constrain the growth of population is appealing, but appropriate estimation of regional carrying capacity would help to forge a definite course for planning.
  • Women sensitization and education toward reproductive choices can play a dominant role in controlling pollution.
  • Economic Planning: By carefully assessing the present and future availability of local resources, economic zones can be planned, which will help in mitigating the adverse effects of economic activities.
  • For Example: The establishment of Coca-Cola bottling plant in Plachimada, Kerala in 2000, resulted in the depletion of groundwater in the area and was shut down in 2004 due to widespread protest. Careful assessment of regional carrying capacity can help us prevent such incidents Agriculture Management: The concept of carrying capacity of an ecosystem can be very useful in proper crop management across the length and breadth of the country. It has been found that farmers are overutilizing the capacity of land without giving any due importance to its regeneration, which has led to the problem of desertification in Punjab and Harayana.
  • For Example: Farmers in water stress areas of Maharashtra are growing water intensive crops which have created drought like conditions in the region. Prior estimation of carrying capacity can help avert such chronic conditions.
  • Under-used capacity of Food Production & Biodiversity: Using appropriate technological advancement, sustainability in food production methods and diversifying the use of biological resources can help attain harmony between natural resource and their utilization.
  • Resource Management: Adaptive management is the most widely accepted solution for confronting the unpredictability of renewable resources. Natural resource management must consider the ever-changing interaction between physical and biological systems, and react according to acquired experience and historical knowledge in a continuous, iterative learning process.


 While considering carrying capacity of an ecosystem as an anchor for sustainable development and planning, it must be taken care that resources are not concentrated in fewer hands. There must be equitable distribution of natural resources as well as manmade resources such as education, health care system and transportation without any discrimination. These steps will help India to fulfill its domestic commitments such as reduction of inequality, poverty and achieve its international obligations of attaining sustainable development goals by 2030.

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