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Page added on September 25, 2011

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7 billion reasons to tackle population explosion

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Happy birthday, seven billionth human on Earth, wherever you are.

Not that there will be much of a party on or around Oct. 31, the due date predicted by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). Not if you’re born, statistically anyway, where expected: the poorest parts of India, or perhaps Africa.

That’s where you’ll find some of the world’s highest rates of population growth, there and in Gulf states such as Qatar, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Oman.

But in Qatar, with its population of some 1.8 million, even a growth rate of about 15 per cent doesn’t translate into that many people.

However, in Nigeria, where 159 million live, according to the 2010 UN World Population Prospects Report, the current growth rate is 2.5 per cent. At that rate, say experts, Nigeria, now the seventh most populated country on the planet, might rival China and India for their top spots by century’s end.

“It’s almost impossible to imagine how they can sustain that,” says John Bongaarts, vice-president of the non-profit Population Council NGO, on the phone from New York.

The UN projection shocked demographers in May when it predicted, because people are living longer and reproducing even faster than expected, we will hit as many as 9.3 billion by mid-century and more than 10 billion by 2100.

Compare that with the estimated global 1 billion around 1800, or 3 billion in 1960, or 6 billion in 1999 . . .

“The world is currently in the midst of the greatest demographic upheaval in human history,” says David Bloom, professor of economics and demography at the Harvard School of Public Health.

Of course, population prediction is not an exact science in that it depends on individual countries taking regular censes, ensuring that everybody is counted. Not every country does, and not every person is. So, although the UN numbers are considered the “gold standard” by demographers, they depend on the data delivered by member nations.

“There is considerable uncertainty built into the UN population predictions,” cautions Bloom in an email from India.

“It could be off by 100 million or so,” admits Bongaarts. “Who cares? It’s very close.”

Environmentalists and economists warn there’s not much reason for celebration. The planet is groaning under the burden of sustaining all of us and, as Bloom points out, “97 per cent of the 2.3 billion population increase expected by 2050 will occur in less developed countries, with 38 per cent in the least developed countries.”

That boom to come will be in Asia and, in particular, Africa.

The irony, says Bongaarts, is that in the ’90s, because AIDS was expected to drastically reduce the African population, governments and donor nations pulled back from funding family planning services and focused instead on containing the epidemic.

“The epidemic has now peaked in Africa and, even though a large number of people died, the momentum of growth is so strong that the UN projects at least another billion people by 2050, probably about 3 billion by 2100,” he says. “So Africa is growing very rapidly and it’s the poorest continent. This is not a good thing.”

It’s hardly a coincidence that most of the fastest-growing countries are among the world’s poorest.

They’re also the worst places to be a woman.

These two factors are very much related.

“In developing countries, more than one out of three pregnancies are unplanned,” says Bongaarts. “Giving these women access to contraception is the obvious thing to do.”

Despite many promises at G8, G20 and UN summits. there’s been more talk than delivery on family planning. The UN reports that donor support for contraceptives and condoms (including those for HIV prevention) remained flat through ’90s, hitting a mere $238 million (U.S.) in 2009.

Last week at the UN, former Irish president Mary Robinson, who fought to make family planning available there in her rookie political days, appealed to member nations “to deliver on promises made 17 years ago at the UN International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, when they agreed to make contraceptive services available for women all over the world by 2015.”

Robinson, now chairwoman of the Global Leaders Council for Reproductive Health, wrote in a paper: “Enough is enough. Women who have access to family planning have fewer children and the ones they do have are healthier and better educated. Long-term, scientists have reported, investments in reproductive health are reflected in lower carbon emissions and a reduced likelihood of civil unrest, as smaller families help lift communities out of poverty and reduce pressure on food security.”

But that takes money.

A 2009 study, co-published by the UNFPA and the Guttmacher Institute, a U.S.-based reproductive rights policy organization, stated that “fulfilling unmet need for modern family planning methods would cost $3.6 billion (in 2008 U.S. dollars), in addition to the $3.1 billion spent serving current users of modern methods — for a total of $6.7 billion annually.”

Which sounds like a lot — but it’s about the same as what the U.S. spends in Iraq every month, according to the 2011 figures from the Congressional Research Service.

But there’s not much cause for optimism.

One major reason is that the initiative proposed last week by the UN Commission on Information and Accountability for Women and Children’s Health, co-chaired by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, is about “a better way of doing business” than funding contraception.

The commission’s 30-page report, Keeping Promises, Measuring Results, mentions “family planning” once and “contraception” three times, but only in the context of financial accountability.

Knowing the Harper government’s reluctance to fund reproductive choice — indeed, it stopped funding International Planned Parenthood in 2009 — Bongaarts laughs that the commission “is a very odd place for (Harper) to be.”

It’s clear to him and to all the demographic experts that the best way to defuse the population bomb is by empowering women.

“When we’re looking at solutions to population growth, we should start at the level of individual women,” says Susan Cohen, the Guttmacher Institute’s vice-president of government affairs, adding that reproductive choice has ripple effects that improve the economic outlook not just for families and communities, but also for nations.

“It would end up leading to a much slower rate of population growth to the point that population would actually stabilize by the middle of the century based on the demographic models that are out there.”

The Star



One Comment on "7 billion reasons to tackle population explosion"

  1. Kenz300 on Tue, 27th Sep 2011 5:09 am 

    Where will all the food, water, oil and jobs come from to support this never ending world population growth. We have an oil crisis, a food crisis, a water crisis, a jobs crisis, a poverty crisis and an environmental crisis caused by a population crisis.

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