Population Matters

2010 World Contraception Day

September 28th, 2010

Living in the United States we take for granted access to birth control, but many women in the developing world lack the information and services they need to control their fertility. Sunday marked World Contraception Day, a day observed every year to highlight the world’s unmet need for contraceptives.

This year’s World Contraception Day coincided with a new international push to expand family planning services. Ban Ki-moon, the U.N.’s Secretary General, last week unveiled a “Global Strategy for Women’s and Children’s Health” when world leaders met in New York to renew their commitment to the U.N. Millennium Development Goals. The U.N. unveiled a $40 billion package of pledged support for programs aimed at improving the health of women and children in the developing world. The U.N. strategy document outlines the commitments and interventions needed to save over 16 million children’s lives, prevent 33 million unwanted pregnancies, and 74,000 deaths of women from pregnancy and childbirth complications.

Also last week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the U.K. Deputy Prime Minister, the Australian Foreign Minister, and Melinda Gates pledged a five-year public/private global alliance to contribute to the goal of reducing the unmet need for family planning by 100 million women. The Reproductive Health Supplies Coalition has a new campaign aimed at fulfilling that commitment. Three different working groups are collaborating on a new developed work plan. For more information visit www.rhsupplies.org.

In support of these and other efforts aimed at expanding family planning and contraceptive services, the Population Institute will be working with other organizations to launch a new grassroots campaign. Keep checking our website for more details.

Hope for Maternal Health

September 17th, 2010

Earlier this week, the World Health Organization, the United Nations Children’s Fund, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), and the World Bank released their new maternal mortality numbers in the report “Trends in Maternal Mortality: 1990 to 2008”. The number of women who are dying from childbirth and pregnancy related causes has fallen 34% from 546,000 women per year in 1990 to 358,000 per year in 2008. This is great news, but with 1,000 women dying every day there is still a lot of work to be done.

If the world is going to meet Millennium Development Goal 5 (MDG5) of reducing the maternal mortality ratio 75% between 1990 and 2015, the world will need to make MDG5 a higher priority. The 34% decline in maternal mortality equates to an average annual decline of 2.3%. In order to meet MDG5 that rate of annual decline will have to be increased to 5.5%, more than double the current rate.

According to Margaret Chan the Director-General of the WHO:

“The global reduction in maternal death rates is encouraging news. Countries where women are facing a high risk of death during pregnancy or childbirth are taking measures that are proving effective; they are training more midwives, and strengthening hospitals and health centers to assist pregnant women. No woman should die due to inadequate access to family planning and to pregnancy and delivery care.”

An important but easy step in meeting MDG5 is ensuring that we meet MDG5b, which calls for universal access to reproductive health care by 2015.   Family planning, in particular, will help to lower the maternal mortality rate by reducing pregnancy-related deaths.  The need is evident. According to UNFPA, there are 215 million women who want to avoid a pregnancy, but who are not using a modern method of contraception.

By investing in family planning internationally, we can prevent unintended pregnancies and abortions, and save the lives of mothers and their children. For every $100 million invested in family planning 2.1 million unintended pregnancies are prevented, 825,000 abortions are prevented, 70,000 infant deaths are prevented, and 4,000 mother lives are saved.

Next week the United Nations General Assembly will focus on the Millennium Development Goals, including MDG5.  Donor nations need to come together and make a strong statement saying we will not accept 1,000 women dying every day in childbirth or from pregnancy-related causes. No woman should die giving birth.

Posted by Jennie Wetter, Program Manager

Which Comes First? Peak Everything or Peak Us?

September 14th, 2010

Andrew Revkin, the blogger (Dot Earth) and long time environmental journalist for the New York Times, has posed a thought provoking question for the week:  Are humans capable of influencing which comes first — peak everything or peak us? 

Unless you are complete fatalist, the answer has to be yes.  If there is such a thing as free will, we are certainly capable of reducing our rate of consumption and lowering our fertility rates to more sustainable levels.  We’re not as dumb as algae. 

But the real question, the one we ought to be asking ourselves, is, “What’s the easiest way to achieve a sustainable world for humanity?”  It’s obvious that the current human trajectory is not sustainable. Sooner or later, demographic push will come to economic and environmental shove.  And, when it does, we won’t be able to meet the energy needs and food requirements of an overpopulated, over-consuming, over-heated world.

So, how do we prevent the human species from “crashing” as a result of resource limitations or catastrophic harm to the environment? How do we reconcile a seemingly uncontrollable appetite for resources with environmental constraints and resource limitations?  These are tough questions. 

But here’s an easy one. What’s the easiest, most cost-effective means of “softening” what Revkin calls “the transition to some steadier state?”  The answer?  Expand voluntary family planning services.  Give every woman in the world the information, services, and power she needs to prevent an unwanted or unintended pregnancy. There’s no reliable estimate of how much it would cost to do that, but it would be a tiny, tiny fraction of what we expend every year to meet the needs of a growing population.  

The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) projected last year that a $3.6 billion increase would meet the family planning needs of 215 million women in the developing world and avert 53 million unwanted or unintended pregnancies. It’s less certain what it would cost to avoid unwanted or unintended pregnancies in the developed world, but the need is certainly there, and the ecological benefits enormous. As recently as 2001, half of all pregnancies in the U.S. were unintended. 

Preventing unwanted and unintended pregnancies may not be as easy as it sounds, particularly in male-dominated societies where women have little to say about how many children they will bear, but the challenges of meeting the demands of projected population growth are immeasurably higher.  The Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that doubling food production in the developing world by midcentury alone will require an average annual net investment of $83 billion, 50 percent more than what is currently being spent. And that’s nothing compared to what we will have to spend to solve the water scarcity problem or reconcile population growth with energy needs and climate concerns.

Expanding voluntary family planning services will not bring an immediate halt to population growth, nor will it solve all the problems of the world.  We might still have to spend trillions and trillions of dollars on developing renewable energy, expanding food production, conserving water, and building more housing, but it might give us the time we need to avert a massive, civilization-disrupting resource crunch.

Are humans capable of influencing which comes first — peak everything or peak us?  Yes. Are we smart enough? That remains to be seen.

Posted by Robert J. Walker, Executive Vice President

Eating Disorder: Living in a Food Insecure World

September 2nd, 2010

Record heat. Record drought. Record floods. Failing crops and rising food prices.  What’s going on?  Today Russia announced announced a 12-month extension of its grain export ban, sending wheat prices again sharply higher on world markets.  It may be too early to declare another food crisis, but it’s time to ask the larger question, “Are we now living in a chronically food insecure world?”

A decade ago, at the beginning of a new millennium, food experts were convinced that global hunger was on the run.  Hopes were high that the number of chronically hungry people in the world could be halved by 2015.  Oil prices were at near record lows and the question of whether the world was warming was still sharply debated. 

Today, it’s a different world. More than 1 billion people in the world are underfed. Global hunger has been on the rise for a decade now.  In the last five years, we’ve seen two global food crises. The first one, the 2007-8 food crisis, was precipitated by the depletion of the world’s grain reserves, and it led to a doubling of wheat and corn prices and a tripling of rice prices.  Food riots broke out in more than two dozen countries as many of the world’s urban poor could not afford to buy food.  Just a few months after that crisis eased, a second food crisis, triggered by the Global Recession, flared up.  Food prices had fallen, but the number of people living in severe poverty shot up, increasing, once again, the ranks of the world’s hungry.

The latest potential food crisis is being blamed on climate change.  Droughts in Russia and the Ukraine, along with flooding in Pakistan and China, are putting upward pressures again on world grain prices.  It’s too early to determine the extent to which extreme weather will impact food prices, but it’s beginning to look like we are drifting from one food crisis to another.

Last year, the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization warned that global food production would have to rise by 70 percent by 2050 to meet the world’s growing appetite for grain, and that food production in developing countries would need to double to keep pace with rising population. 

When that forecast was made a year ago, few people thought that meeting the world’s soaring demand for food would be easy.  Farmers would have to overcome a host of obstacles, including the loss of arable land and top soil, rising energy prices, increasing water scarcity, and the effects of climate change.

Today, the challenge of feeding the world’s hungry is looking a whole lot harder.  Long before the fires and the floods broke out in Asia, the World Food Programme was desperately trying to raise money to feed 4.5 million people in Niger and other parts of the African Sahel.  Now it has to provide emergency relief to Pakistan where 6 million people are in urgent need of food assistance, more than 200,000 farm animals have been killed, topsoil has been eroded, and farmers are in desperate need of seed.

Looking ahead, the challenges are only going to get larger.  Maplecroft, a global risk assessment firm based in Bath, England, last month released its Food Security Risk Index.  Employing 12 criteria developed in collaboration with the World Food Programme, the index identifies the countries most at risk when food prices rise. The ten countries most at risk (Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Eritrea, Sudan, Ethiopia, Angola, Liberia, Chad, and Zimbabwe) are all on track to double, or nearly double, their populations over the next 40 years. And many of them could suffer some of the worst effects of a warming planet. The Maplecroft report concludes that “Climate change is having a profound effect on global food security,” and warns that other countries, like Pakistan, could move up quite quickly on the list of the world’s food insecure.

It may be that the recent bout of record temperatures and severe weather is not a harbinger of things to come and that fears of climate change have been overstated. Let’s hope so. For the more than one billion chronically hungry people in the world today it may be their only hope.

Posted by Robert J. Walker, Executive Vice President