Population and human development - the key connections

Posted: May 2011

We now realise that the disasters that continue increasingly to afflict the natural world have one element that connects them all - the unprecedented increase in the number of human beings on the planet.
Sir David Attenborough in the president's 'People and Planet' address to the Royal Society of Arts and Commerce, March 10, 2011.
Sir David Attenborough
Sir David Attenborough. Photo © Butterfly Conservation

Concern over the world's booming human population - which has grown from three to  7 billion in little more than 40 years - has abated somewhat as birth rates have fallen right across the world. But there is still a long way to go before numbers stabilise at somewhere between eight and 11 billion - and some countries, such as Pakistan or Nigeria, are on course to triple their numbers by the middle of this 21st century.

Globally, many experts are concerned that the earth's 'carrying capacity' is already overstrained, and worry that the huge impending increases in consumption in countries such as India and China will add enormously to the burden of greenhouse gases which threaten to heat the planet - not to mention all the other demands which increases in both population and consumption are putting on the earth's natural systems. Indeed some commentators argue that one of the best strategies for reducing future greenhouse gas emissions is to stabilise population as quickly as can be achieved by non-coercive education and reproductive health programmes.

Estimated and projected world population
Estimated and projected world population by population variant, 1950-2050. Source: UN. Click on image for full-size version.

Nor is the problem confined to the so-called 'developing world'. The United States, for example, produces a quarter of the world's carbon dioxide emissions with only five per cent of the global population. And, unlike Europe, the US population is growing fast - from 200 million in 1970, to over 310 million today [2011] and a projected 420 million in 2050.

One of the complicating facts is that much of the world's population - especially in the South - is very young, with plenty of potential to reproduce. So that although the rate of population growth began to decline some 30 years ago, annual additions to the human population are still near to their highest level, with some 78 million being added every year, or over 200,000 people every day. This is equivalent of a San Francisco every week and almost a Germany every year.

These people all need food, housing, jobs and health care. And once basic needs are met, the appetite for other consumer goods and services seems to be limited only by the ability to pay for them. Human impacts on resources and on the environment vary, therefore, not only with changes in population growth and distribution but also with changes in levels of consumption and the technologies involved.

For example, since 1950 the richest fifth of humanity has doubled its consumption of energy, meat, timber, steel and copper per person and quadrupled its car ownership, while the poorest fifth of humanity has increased its general consumption hardly at all.

Making problems worse

Malnourished boy Burkina Faso
Malnourished boy Burkina Faso. Burkina Faso's government says 23 per cent acute malnutrition is not a crisis. Aid agencies say the government is the obstacle to making progress. Photo © Nicholas Reader/IRIN
For this reason, booming population is only one among many causes of social and environmental problems. But such growth can make these problems much more difficult to solve. However, for a variety of reasons, including the previous US government's attitude towards family planning, population has slipped down the international agenda, almost to the point of disappearing. President Obama's swift action to restore funding to the UN Population Fund and rising concern over the impacts of climate change on the earth's natural resurces and food supply, have begun to bring the issue of population back into focus - but much time has been wasted.

Indeed a report in 2007 from UK parliamentarians said "a whole decade has been lost" in dealing with the problem. They pointed especially to the rampant growth of human numbers in many poor African countries where the problem of land degredatioin and poverty are most severe.

Ethiopia, for example, has seen its numbers grow from 42 million at the time of the infamous famine in 1984 to 90 million today. By 2050 its population is projected to reach 145 million - and this at a time when eight million Ethiopians already live on permanent food aid.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, as a whole, the numbers of people in extreme poverty fell from nearly 48 per cent in 1990 to 41.1 per cent by 2004, with most of the progress achieved in the previous seven years. However, the MDG report for 2007 said that what little progress has been made had stalled and that there was no immediate likelihood of further reductions in poverty rates for those living on less than one dollar a day. It seems that Sub-Saharan Africa will not come close to halving poverty by 2015.

Hungry people graph
In round numbers there are 7 billion people in the world. Thus, with an estimated 925 million hungry people in the world, 13.1 percent, or almost 1 in 7 people are hungry. The FAO estimate is based on statistical aggregates. It looks at a country's income level and income distribution and uses this information to estimate how many people receive such a low level of income that they are malnourished. It is not an estimate based on seeing to what extent actual people are malnourished and projecting from there (as would be done by survey sampling).

Some other key connections between population and the welfare of the planet are:

  • Rapid or persistent population growth can force farmers and fishermen to over-exploit fragile ecosystems with damaging results. It can also increase pressures on local infrastructures and services. It speeds the rate of urbanisation (itself not a bad thing), often leading to dangerous, overcrowded and unplanned settlements, with poor sanitation, a lack of clean water and health threatening air pollution.

  • In some rural settings increased population growth appears to have stimulated new farming methods, but elsewhere it has resulted in the over-use of slash and burn techniques, and unsustainable land clearance on fragile, sloping and forested land and destructive coastal development.

  • Since 1972, the main driving force leading to pressure on land and water resources has been increasing food production. In 2011, food is needed for over 2.5 billion more people than in 1972. The trend in recent years has shown population growth drawing ahead of food production in some regions of the world, particularly Africa. Some commentators believe that China may soon become a major food grain importer, as it already is for soya.

  • One billion new jobs must be created over the next decade just to maintain current employment levels. The availability of a young, educated labour force can be a bonus in newly industrialising countries, but jobs are especially hard to create in countries with high levels of under-employment, poor educational standards and limited infrastructure - and these are often the ones with rapid increases in population.

  • Progress in reducing hunger in the developing world has slowed to a crawl and in some regions the number of undernourished people has actually been growing in recent years'  In 2010, FAO estimated there are still 906 million hungry people in developing countries, about the same as in 1970, when the population was much smaller. In addition, there are 19 million hungry people living in the 'developed countries'. This brings the total number of malnourished people in the world to 925 million (down from over a billion the year before).

  • To achieve the World Food Summit goal of halving the number undernourished in developing countries by 2015, the average annual decrease required is 24 million - almost 10 times the level of performance in most recent years..

  • According to estimates by Harvard entomologist, Edward O. Wilson, some 27,000 plant, animal and insect species become extinct every year (the vast majority being insects). About 24 per cent (1,130) of mammals and 12 per cent (1,183) of bird species are currently regarded as globally threatened. Most species extinction can be traced to human encroachments on habitat, including forests and coral reefs, which results from population growth and economic development.

  • Where resources are already limited, rapid population growth can make it more difficult to eradicate poverty, because the economy, infrastructure and the necessary pool of teachers, doctors and other professionals all need to grow faster than supply.

  • Worldwide the number of people in developing countries living on less than one dollar a day dropped to 980 million in 2004, from 1.25 billion in 1990. Though this represents a reduction of 9 per cent since 1990 (from 28 to 19 per cent), it means that in the poorest countries abject poverty is still endemic. Indeed, between 1990 and 2004, the consumption of the poorest fifth of the world’s population actually fell from 4.6 to 3.9 per cent. And close to 3 billion people are still subsisting on two dollars a day or less.Source: The Millennium Development Goals Report 2007, UN, December 2007, NY.

  • More than any other resource, water shortage is becoming critical issue both for agriculture (which makes up about 70 per cent of demand)and industry. A safe water supply is also one of the most important factors in improving the health of poor families. Up to 7 billion people, in 60 countries, will face water scarcity within the next half centrury, according to the UN World Water Development Report released in March 2003.

  • Human activities have destroyed 11 per cent of the globe's arable land, the size of China and India combined, and over 40 per cent is now degraded in some way. As a result, every year, the world's farmers must feed 77 million more people with 27 billion fewer tons of topsoil.

  • Humanity will have to undergo a "revolution in thinking" in order to deal with the doubling of urban populations in Africa and Asia by 2030, the United Nations warns in a 2007 report which shows that over 30 years, the population of African and Asian cities will double, adding 1.7 billion people , or more than the present populations of China and the United States put together.

    By 2030, 5 billion people (over 60 per cent of the world's population) are expected to live in towns and cities. And while urban settlements have great potential to enrich life, the speed of their growth has led to immense environmental problems. Some 600 million city dwellers are today without adequate shelter and over 400 million do not have access to the simplest latrines.

Adolescent girls, India.
Adolescent girls, India.

Among the many prescriptions for dealing with such problems, perhaps none has such a catalytic effect as the education of girls. This helps lower child and maternal mortality rates; it increases the demand for family planning and reduces average family size (or what the demographers refer to as 'fertility'), it increases the educational attainment by daughters and of their children; it raises productivity; and it improves environmental management.

It is also one key element of the Action Plan agreed at the UN Conference on Population and Development agreed in Cairo in 1994, and further strengthened at a follow-up conference in New York in 1999.

Educating girls and empowering women are also central to the achievement of the eight Millennium Development Goals, agreed to by the world's nations at the Millennium Summit held at the UN in New York in September 2000.

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