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close this bookThe Courier N 123 Sept - October 1990 - Dossier Higher Education - Country Reports: Barbados - (EC Courier, 1990, 104 p.)
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View the documentPopulation growth - can it be slowed down?
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Population growth - can it be slowed down?

Being used to the alarming annual reports of the UN Fund for Population Activities is one thing, but the heightened pessimism of the latest one is quite another. The UNFPA’s recent outline of the state of the world population in 1990 is indeed particular cause for concern, with its claim that mankind is doomed to disaster unless it manages to slow down its rate of growth (which itself determines the rate and extent of damage of the environment). And it has to do so fast; in the final 10 years of the millenium. Now is the time to take steps to ensure that the world population merely (!) doubles over the next century before stopping its expansion altogether. Otherwise, under present trends, numbers will treble in this time with dramatic consequences for the environment. As the UNFPA so uncompromisingly puts it, the earth’s future as a home for mankind is at stake over the next 10 years.

But what are these highly alarmist predictions based on? On rates of population growth. There are something like 5.3 billion people on the planet today and every second sees the birth of three more - a quarter of a million a day, 90-100 million a year and a billion (the equivalent of the present population of China) in the nineties. The reason for this is that birth rates have failed to decline as the UN predicted in 1984. Six years ago, population growth seemed to be on the wane everywhere outside of Africa and parts of South Asia and demographers were already rubbing their hands at the idea of the world population stabilising at around 10.2 billion by the end of the 21st century. But such optimism is no longer the order of the day.

The same experts are now predicting a figure closer to 11 billion than 10 billion, because some countries which had enjoyed conspicuous success with their family planning policies in the sixties and seventies failed to keep up the good work in the eighties. This happened in India, the Philippines and Morocco, all of which got their birth rates down by a point a year between 1960-65 and 1970-75 but only managed a tenth to a third of a point p.a. over the following decade. For India, the UNFPA report says, this probably means a population of 1.446 billion intead of 1.229 billion by the year 2025 - 217 million more than if the improvements had been maintained. And Pakistan will have 267 million inhabitants instead of the predicted 210 million by 2025. This, the report says, is the price of delaying our efforts to control the population.

Capacity not unlimited

The situation in Africa is cause for even greater concern. Situated there are 13 of the 15 countries where the birth rate, far from declining, actually increased between 1960-65 and 198085 and it there that the biggest population explosion is to be expected. The increase is already considerable - 2.7 % p.a. is commonplace on this continent - and it will be speeding up further over this decade to 3 %, an unprecedented figure for a whole region. Every year, 10 million more people join the ranks of a population whose density already poses a very acute problem of land (the fields have been subdivided so often) in some, essentially agricultural countries such as Rwanda and Burundi.

But in 20 years or so, the annual increase will be up to the 15 million mark. There are expected to be 1.581 billion Africans by the year 2025 (there are “ only “ 648 million of them today), which will be almost a fifth of the world population (18.4%, to be precise, as against the current 9 %). Half a billion people are already hungry or malnourished and one dare not imagine what would happen if considerable economic progress failed to go hand in hand with this vast demographic expansion. The recent famines in Ethiopia, the Sahel and Sudan would pale into insignificance alongside. But the last 30 years give no grounds for optimism. Between 197981 and 1986-87, cereal production in 25 of the 43 African countries for which the FAO has statistics declined and the developing countries as a whole now import about 100 million tonnes of cereals every year - a figure which will be rising, some estimates suggest, to 200 million tonnes.

But the developed nations do not themselves have unlimited production capacity. No one has forgotten the 1988 drought, which brought down the American harvest and revealed just how precarious world supplies were - even though the world does have the resources to feed all the people who live in it. But what will happen when the population is three times its present size? How can the inevitable food shortages be handled? Kenya, for example, has 25 million people now and could well have 60 million by the year 2025 the maximum number its agriculture can feed, although only by applying European standards and growing food crops on every square metre of arable land. By the end of the next century, projections suggest, Nigeria could have 500 million inhabitants (as many as in the whole of Africa in 1982), or 10 people per hectare of arable land, while contemporary France, the report says, with more fertile land and less erosion, has fewer than three. And Bangladesh’s population of 116 million will be up to 324 million by the end of the 21st century, with a density on arable land of twice the present figure for the Netherlands.

Nor will the situtation be any better ‘ in the towns. The urban population in the developing world is expanding at the rate of 3.6 % p.a. four and a half; times the figure for the developed nations and 60% faster than in the rural areas. It has gone from 285 million in 1950 to 1.384 billion today and it will be 4.050 billion by 2025. Local and national authorities everywhere are swamped by the problems of heavier and heavier concentration, with water and power supplies and drainage becoming real headaches. The number of urban households with no drinking water on tap went from 138 million to 215 million over the 1970-88 period and private households without proper drainage from 98 million to 340 million which should come as no suprise, bearing in mind that 72 % live in slums and shanty towns. And, at 92%, the figure for Africa is higher still.

A climatic change

It is not just the quality of life on earth which is threatened by the ever-increasing number of people. It is, quite simply, that the earth as a home for mankind is at stake, if the UNFPA report is to be believed, because of the deterioration of land and forests and the global warming which comes in its wake.

Erosion ruins an estimated 6-7 million hectares of farm land every year. The FAO says that 544 million hectares (18% of all arable land) could be completely lost if nothing is done to protect them and the fertility of other areas could dwindle. Deforestation is one of the main causes of erosion. More than 11 million hectares (the size of Belgium and Austria combined) of tropical forest and woodland are cleared every year and a further 4.4 million hectares are exploited selectively for the timber trade, often endangering a third or more of the trees which remain. Is there any need to emphasise the fact that most of the cleared woodland in the developing countries is used to grow food for an ever-expanding population?

Deforestation also causes carbon dioxide to be released into the atmosphere, making a SO % contribution to global warming and deteriorating the ozone layer with chloroflurocarbons (20 % of warming). Scientists say that world temperatures are already 0.6 °C hotter than they were a century ago and predict further increases of 1.5° to 2.8° by the middle of the next century. So the world will be warmer than at any time in the past 120 000 years and - most important - the climatic change will have come about far more rapidly than any other in history. The consequences are apocalyptic - whole areas turned to desert, the level of the oceans raised with some countries disappearing or submerged, disaster in farming and so on.

There is no avoiding the UNFPA’s conclusions. The more people there are, the more difficult it will be to give them all an education, health care, housing and a balanced diet. And the more pollution there will be, with damage to the environment and gas emissions bringing on the greenhouse effect. So the UNFPA suggests cutting the rate of population growth in the developing world. If present trends continue, there will be 9.4 billion people in the world by the year 2025, but if global fecundity can be reduced from the current 4.2 to 2.7 children per woman by 2000-05 and to 1.9 by about 2020-25, there will be almost 2 billion fewer people on earth in 2025, bringing the total down to 7.6 billion. But there is another hypothesis, currently the most likely, midway between the catastrophe scenario and the ideal, no doubt over-optimistic projection. That is one in which the average fecundity goes from 4.2 children to 3.2 in 2000-05 and 2.3 in 2020-25, with the population reaching 8.4 billion in 2025.


The achievement of this - or any other scenario depends to a very large extent on the attitude of women, who are crucial to the success of any family planning and birth control policy. Access to contraception has to be made geographically and financially easier. Target groups, such as adolescents, hitherto passed by, must be reached and given better information, as well as and education facilities so that they realise that there are statuses other than those involving large numbers of pregnancies. The effects of education on fecundity and family planning are obvious. Women who have had seven years’ schooling get married an average of four years later than women with no schooling. They also use two and a half times as many contraceptives (four times as many in Africa) and have 2.2 fewer children on average.

But tackling education, women’s status, health facilities and family planning all at once is a very expensive undertaking. Birth control programmes only get crumbs from the developing countries’ budgets. And in an Africa undergoing structural adjustment, with systematic cutbacks in social spending, where is the money to pay for these policies to come from? If the UNFPA’s average projection is to be achieved, $ 5.3-6.5 billion p.a. has to be ploughed into family planning services alone by the year 2000. Compare this with the $ 675 million put into aid for family planning activities in the developing world in 1988. Alarming reports on the world population are on the cards for some time to come.