Population Matters

9.5 Billion?

July 28th, 2010

Officially, World Population Day occurs every year on July 11.  But for those who track the world’s changing demographics, another  population day occurs a few weeks later when the Population Reference Bureau (PRB) publishes its annual World Population Data Sheet, which is widely considered to be the most accurate source of information on population.  And today’s the day.

So let’s look at the latest numbers, and let’s start with the global numbers.  PRB estimates world population for mid-2010 is now 6.9 billion (6,892,319,000 to be exact) and that it will reach the 7.0 billion mark next year, just twelve years after the 6.0 billion mark was reached.  PRB’s population clock estimates that world population is increasing at just over 83 million people per year.  

PRB now projects that world population will be 9.485 billion by mid-2050, just shy of 9.5 billion. That number is slightly higher than last year’s projection (9.421 billion), and notably higher than the U.N.’s current medium variant projection (9.149 billion), as reported in World Population Prospects: the 2008 Revision.

PRB latest data sheet  indicates a very slight decline in the world’s total fertility rate (the average number of children that a woman has in her lifetime), but it’s not uniform.  Europe’s estimated TFR increases slightly (from 1.5 to 1.6), while Eastern Africa’s goes down slightly (from 5.4 to 5.3), as does the TFR for the United States (from 2.1 to 2.0). 

Some of the changes from last year are more striking.  Last year, PRB estimated that the population of the Democratic Republic of Congo would jump from 68.7 million to 189.3 million in 2050.  That mid-century estimate was lowered this year to 166.2 million.  Some of that is accounted for by a drop in the birth rate, but more significantly perhaps the death rate is rising in the DRC:  from an estimated 13 deaths per thousand to 17 deaths per thousand.  On the other side of the population coin, the projected decline in Russia’s population has eased.  Last year, PRB projected that Russia’s population would decline from142 million to 116.9 million by 2050.  This year, the 2050 projection was increased to 126.7 million.

We should be careful to not read too much into the year-to-year changes.  But this much is clear. Contrary to the claims made by Fred Pearce and others who have declared that population growth no longer poses a challenge, the projected increased in the world’s population has important implications for the future of the planet and the welfare of humankind.  

If PRB’s projection is realized, we will be adding about 2.6 billion people to the planet over the next 40 years, considerably higher than the “2 billion” figure that’s often thrown about.  No one knows, of course, whether PRB’s population projection will be realized.  Much depends on how fast fertility rates fall, and whether death rates start rising again, as is presently happening in the DRC.  But if global population continues to grow in line with PRB’s current projection, we have a lot of work cut out for us.  Meeting our rising demand for food, energy and water, while simultaneously addressing the challenges posed by climate change, will not be easy.  It may be impossible.

Posted by Robert J. Walker, Executive Vice President

Pakistan’s New Population Policy

July 26th, 2010

After years of neglect, Pakistan this year adopted a new population policy that promises to boost support for family planning services and information.  Earlier this month, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani told a national convention on population that population growth is a bigger problem than the water and electricity crises that now grip the country. He said, “I take pride in sharing that the Pakistan Peoples Party is the only political party that includes population planning in its party manifesto.” 

Current population projections indicate that Pakistan’s population will grow from an estimated 181 million in 2009 to 335 million by 2050 unless fertility rates drop faster than currently projected.  At present, women in Pakistan have an average of four children.

In March of this year, Huma Yusuf, who was appointed this week as a Pakistan Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center, wrote a column for Dawn, one of Pakistan’s leading daily newspaper, in which she said:

The best news Pakistanis have received in the past week comes in the form of the National Population Policy 2010. The policy recognises that demographics are the key to promoting economic development and security in Pakistan. It also prioritises family planning — particularly in an effort to promote birth spacing — as the best strategy for achieving ambitious population targets (2.1 births per woman in 2025).

In her article, Yusuf stressed that educating girls is as important as family planning and information services.  She also stressed, however, that the government’s new policy is:

…short on innovative solutions to address myriad shortfalls in service delivery. For example, little attention is paid to the fact that men must be included in all family planning initiatives. And while there is a call to engage religious leaders in spreading information about contraceptives, no concrete plans for training, outreach and counselling through mosques or madressahs is put forward. There can be no doubt, however, that such campaigns are necessary: one study states that ‘psychosocial’ issues, including a husband’s opposition and perceived religious condemnation, account for 50 per cent of barriers to contraceptive use reported by women.

The government’s new population policy is promising and certainly long overdue, but as Yusuf points out, much will depend on how it’s implemented.  If it is successful, the government’s new family planning initiative could be crucial in reducing severe poverty, improving food security, reducing infant and maternal mortality, and elevating the status of women in Pakistan.  So far so good.

Posted by Robert J. Walker, Executive Vice President

The Growing Hunger Epidemic

July 21st, 2010

It’s not headline news, but hunger is on the rise in places like Zimbabwe, Kenya, and Niger.

In fact, Zimbabwe’s 2010 National Nutrition Survey reported that more than a third of the nation’s children under the age of five now suffer from malnutrition. This chronic malnutrition accounts for nearly 12,000 child deaths annually.  Dubbing the issue as a, “significant public threat,” the Director of the Zimbabwe Food and Nutrition Council, George Kembo, urged that, “we must continue placing nutrition at the center of our development agenda.”

Kenya is facing a similar malnutrition crisis with Vitamin A Deficiency (VAD). This deficiency prevents the absorption of nutrients, cripples the immune system and globally kills 600,000 children annually. Kenyetta Hospital—Kenya’s oldest hospital—admits more than 20 children each week, exclusively to deal with malnutrition.

In Niger and other parts of the African Sahel, drought is leading to widespread hunger.  The World Food Programme urgently needs to raise $100 million to help feed 4.5 million people in the region.

Hunger and poor sanitation is clearly a global epidemic—one that has killed three times more people than all of the wars fought during the 20th century.

While U.N.’s World Food Programme and other relief agencies have worked tirelessly to fight the scourge of famine, world hunger still persists. The question remains: what more can possibly be done to prevent the spread of global hunger?

Population lies at the heart of both the problem and its solution.

Many of the one billion people suffering from hunger live in developing countries with high population growth rates and a growing dependence on external food aid.  This is particularly true in sub-Saharan Africa, but it’s also true in many parts of South Asia. In fact, a recent United Nations report revealed that hunger levels in South Asia have not improved at all in the past two decades.

The fight against hunger is being fought on multiple levels, but in the long run family planning and reproductive health services are pivotal to addressing hunger. They allow women to have the number of children they want, when they want. For families who are already struggling to feed themselves, the power to space or limit pregnancies can save lives, fight malnutrition, and break the cycle of poverty.

In recent years, the global economic downturn, rising food prices, and changing weather patterns have conspired, along with population growth, to push the number of hungry in the world above the one billion mark.  But to understand the global food crisis, it’s important to see it in terms of people, not statistics. That’s why I put together this video.

Posted by Elizabeth Bourassa, Media Fellow

MDG 5: Where Are We?

July 16th, 2010

In 2000 the United Nations agreed on eight goals, collectively called the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), to reduce extreme poverty and hunger, improve health and education, empower women, and create environmental sustainability by 2015.  Now ten years later and with less than five years to go, how close are we to achieving those goals? The United Nations recently released The Millennium Development Goals Report: 2010, which looks at the gains that have been made and the areas that still need progress. The report points out some successes in getting children into schools, eliminating poverty, and preventing malaria and AIDS, but progress in reducing maternal mortality is still lagging.

According to the report:

New estimates of maternal mortality are currently being finalized by the World Health Organization (WHO), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), and the World Bank. Preliminary data shows signs of progress, with some countries achieving significant declines in maternal mortality ratios. However, the rate of reduction is still well short of the 5.5 percent annual decline needed to meet the MDG target.

This preliminary evidence is supported by a study from the Lancet released this spring showing that the number of women dying from maternal mortality related causes is declining. Even with this decrease there is a lot of work that needs to be done and the stakes are high. For every woman who dies from a pregnancy-related cause, 20 more suffer from lifelong injury. The decline in maternal mortality numbers show that we know what interventions work, but money and political will is needed to meet the target of reducing the maternal mortality rate in developing countries by three quarters between 1990 and  2015.

Meeting a woman’s unmet need for family planning is critical to achieving that target. According to the report:

Satisfying women’s unmet need for family planning…could improve maternal health and reduce the number of maternal deaths. Recent estimates indicate that meeting that need could result in a 27 percent drop in maternal deaths each year by reducing the annual number of unintended pregnancies from 75 million to 22 million.

Unfortunately, funding for family planning has declined in real dollars since 1995, while the number of women who have an unmet need has increased. The good news is that the United States has ramped up its funding over the past two years, but the aid level still falls short of the actual need. There is still time to achieve the MDG 5 goals of reducing maternal mortality and providing universal access to reproductive health services.  The recent commitments made at the G8 summit will help, but time is starting to run out.

Posted by Jennie Wetter, Program Manager

Saving Niger

July 15th, 2010

Because women in Niger on average have seven children, Niger’s population is on track to jump from an estimated 15.3 million  in 2009 to 58 million by 2050. No one knows how Niger will feed itself in forty years.  That’s because no knows how Niger will feed itself today. 

Earlier this month, Josette Sheeran, the executive director of the World Food Programme (WFP), warned that, as a consequence of widespread hunger, Niger was in danger of “losing a generation.”  She warned that the brains and bodies of children under the age of five will be severely damaged unless added nutrition is provided soon. 

The current hunger crisis in Niger and other parts of the Sahel region in Africa is being caused by drought and high food prices. WFP plans to reach 4.5 million people in the region in the next few months, but Sheeran warned that the situation is deteriorating rapidly and that WFP needs about $100 million to bridge the funding gap. 

Tragically, the long range forecast for Niger, the Sahel, and many other areas of the developing world is continued drought and ever higher food prices. Climate change is expected to worsen drought conditions in much of South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, and the rate of population growth is likely to outstrip food production in the decades ahead, leading to periodic or chronic food shortages and higher food prices. 

So where does all this lead?  Earlier this month, Reuters put together a panel of experts to discuss, in their words, the “F-word,” meaning famine.  The forum generated a lot of poignant on-line chatter, but virtually nothing in the mainstream media.  Last month, a major think-tank in India warned in a special report that rice and wheat yields in India and China will likely fall between 30-50% by 2050 because of climate change and other factors, but the report got little media attention.

With the world still wrestling with a global recession and a major environmental disaster still unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico, very few people are paying any attention to the tragedy that is now unfolding in Niger.  Fewer still are focusing on what may lie ahead if global food production is unable to keep up with the world’s ever growing appetite for food. 

We may yet win the WFP’s battle to save the children of Niger.  But the war against hunger is far from over.

Posted by Robert J. Walker, Executive Vice President

Earth To Fred

July 12th, 2010

Fred Pearce keeps on saying that population growth is no longer a problem. He said it again yesterday in Grist as part of his World Population Day message.

In Fred’s view it’s very simple.  Fertility rates have come down sharply over the past half century.  Problem solved. 

Sorry, Fred, saying that population growth is no longer a problem doesn’t make it so no matter how many times you say it.  Neither does wishful thinking.

While admitting that world population may increase by another two billion or so by midcentury, he dismisses this increment as a “time-lag” problem. 

Earth to Fred:  two billion more people is a lot of people to a world that is already struggling to feed 6.8 billion people.  It’s a lot of people to a biosphere that is threatened with what leading biologists refer to as the Sixth Mass Extinction.  And it’s a lot of people to a planet that is already threatened with the effects of climate change.  And while “population momentum” (i.e. large numbers of people entering their reproductive years) may account for some of the projected increase in human numbers, much of it is being driven by the fact that fertility rates in many developing countries around the world are still well above the “replacement rate.” 

Yes, Fred, we must do something about consumption. Unless we in the developed world do more to curb our consumption of fossil fuels and scarce minerals, the world is headed for an ecological and humanitarian disaster. We need to lower our per capita consumption of fossil fuels and other scarce resources.  A lot.  But I don’t see the G8 or the G20 putting their heads together right now in an effort to lower consumer spending. Really, I don’t.  Neither do I see anything happening with respect to climate change.

And that’s why it’s especially important to prevent unwanted pregnancies in the U.S. and other developed nations.  [Sorry, Fred, it doesn’t matter that America’s fertility rate is right around the “replacement rate” or that Europe’s is well below it.  A baby born here or elsewhere in the developed world will still consume a disproportionate share of the world’s resources and contribute disproportionately to the world’s environmental problems].

It’s also important to prevent unwanted pregnancies in the developing world. The reasons, however, are different.  It really doesn’t matter whether global fertility rates have dropped sharply; they remain unsustainably high in many of the least developed areas of the world.  Yes, Fred, fertility rates have come down sharply in Iran and Bangladesh, but women in Afghanistan and Somalia and other desperately poor countries are still having four, five or six children on average.  Some poor countries, like Uganda and Niger, are on track to triple their population over the next forty years.  Africa’s population will likely double by mid-century.

Looking ahead, Fred, will these countries be able to feed themselves?  Will they have enough safe drinking water?  Will their lands be deforested or their rivers polluted?  Will their maternal and infant mortality rates remain unacceptably high?  Will they be caught in a demographic poverty-trap?  Will they become failed states?  If you have good answers to these questions, please let me know.  Because if you don’t, then we need to ensure that women in these developing countries are given the information and the access to contraceptives that they need to prevent unwanted and unintended pregnancies.

Someday we will be able to declare victory.  Someday every woman will have access to family planning services and reproductive health care.  Someday world population will be in decline.  Someday world population levels will pose no danger to the health of the planet.  But that day has not arrived.  Not yet.  In the meantime, your breezy dismissal of the “population problem,” does an enormous disservice to the planet and every living creature that calls it home.

Posted by Robert J. Walker, Executive Vice President

World Population Day: Asia Speaks Out

July 12th, 2010

World Population Day (July 11) received little attention in the United States yesterday.  Not so in Asia, where renewed concerns about rapid population growth are prompting governments to actively promote smaller families and expand family planning services.

In Pakistan yesterday, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani told a national convention on population that population growth is a bigger problem than the water and electricity crises that now grip the country. He said, “I take pride in sharing that the Pakistan Peoples Party is the only political party that includes population planning in its party manifesto.”  Federal Minister for Population Welfare, Firdous Ashiq Awan, also spoke. She criticized the prior government for its inaction on family planning and reproductive health, and warned that population growth is directly linked with poverty.  She noted that the education and empowerment of women were critical to reducing birth rates.

In New Delhi, India, yesterday Ghulam Nabi Azad, the Union Health and Family Welfare Minister, ruled out any coercive policies, but said that the government needs to raise awareness about the benefits of having smaller families.  He also said that the government should strictly enforce laws banning early marriage. Speaking at a run to mark World Population Day, Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit warned that rapid population growth hurts economic development and urged the education and empowerment of girls and women.

Even in Bangladesh, where fertility rates have dropped significantly in the past three decades, government officials warned that more needed to be done to reduce population growth rates.  Citing concerns about poverty and the environment, President Zillur Rahman proposed an expansion of family planning services and said the slogan, “Not more than two children, one is better” should be extended across the country to promote smaller families.  He also stressed the vital importance of educating and empowering women.

In the Philippines, where the new Aquino government has pledged to expand access to modern methods of contraceptives, the Philippine Star ran an editorial yesterday criticizing the former government for neglecting “family planning and reproductive health for nine and a half years,” and said, “the new administration should commit to promoting maternal and child health, by providing universal access to information on family planning and reproductive rights… impoverished women must be able to make an informed choice on family planning. This is a basic human right.”

As these governments and others in Asia step up efforts to expand voluntary family planning services and boost the education of girls and women, the United States urgently needs to assist in these efforts.  That’s a World Population Day message that every American needs to hear.

And here’s another one from USAID about the importance of international family planning assistance:

Posted by Robert J. Walker, Executive Vice President

World Population Day: Are We Losing the Race to Feed?

July 8th, 2010

This Sunday marks the 21st observance of World Population Day. The theme for this year is the importance of data collection.  Good demographic data are, after all, critically important in planning schools, health systems and public transportation, and essential in monitoring our progress with respect to health, nutrition, and the elimination of severe poverty.

World Population Day, however, is also a time to reflect on population growth and its implications.  There are many reasons why population growth is a matter of global concern, but the greatest of all them is the never ending race to feed.  In the 20th century, world population quadrupled and so did food production.  Indeed, the number of undernourished in the world declined between 1969, when Paul Ehrlich wrote The Population Bomb, and 1996.  But since then, we have been losing ground in the race to feed. As the FAO reports:

2009 has been a devastating year for the world’s hungry, marking a significant worsening of an already disappointing trend in global food security since 1996. The global economic slowdown, following on the heels of the food crisis in 2006–08, has deprived an additional 100 million people of access to adequate food. There have been marked increases in hunger in all of the world’s major regions, and more than one billion people are now estimated to be undernourished.

A decade ago hopes were still high that expanded food production in developing countries and improvements in food distribution would banish global hunger by 2015. The optimism, however, is beginning to fade.  The FAO reported last year that global food production will have to increase by 75 percent by 2050 to keep pace with the world’s growing appetite for food, and crop production in the developing world will have to double to avert food shortages. The race to feed the world’s hungry is not yet won.

There are, in fact, many reasons why food production could expand in the decades ahead, most notably the intensified use of irrigation, hybrid seeds, fertilizers, and mechanized machinery.  But, as the same time, there are a host of obstacles to be overcome, including desertification, the erosion of topsoil, the rising costs of fuel and fertilizers, increasing water scarcity, the loss of farmland, the harmful effects of climate change, and even the return of wheat rust as a threat to world wheat production.

Last month, the Strategic Foresight Group, a think tank based in India, released a report titled ‘The Himalayan Challenge: Water Security in Emerging Asia,” which warned that:

The cumulative effect of water scarcity, glacial melting, disruptive precipitation patterns, flooding, desertification, pollution, and soil erosion will be a massive reduction in the production of rice, wheat, maize and fish. Both India and China will face drop in the yield of wheat and rice anywhere between 30-50% by 2050. At the same time demand for food grains will go up by at least 20%. As a net result, China and India alone will need to import more than 200-300 million tonnes of wheat and rice, driving up the international prices of these commodities in the world market. This will have adverse impact on the poor all over the world.

Given the inherent uncertainty in climate forecasts, SFG’s report may overstate the challenge, but its findings cannot be easily dismissed.  The report was funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and prepared by 25 experts from Bangladesh, China, India and Nepal.  Nor, as reported recently in The Economist, is it easy to dismiss the growing concerns that wheat rust, a crop killing fungus, is rebounding and may soon threaten some of the major wheat growing regions, including the Punjab and Australia.

With world population still on track to reach 9 billion or higher by mid-century, World Population Day 2010 is a good time to reflect on whether we are losing the race to feed.

Posted by Robert J. Walker, Executive Vice President