Rising numbers cast a long shadow

Posted: 5 September 2000

Author: Lester Brown, Gary Gardner and Brian Halweil

Author Info: Lester Brown, Gary Gardner and Brian Halweil are authors of the Worldwatch Paper 143: Beyond Malthus: Sixteen Dimensions of the Population Problem, from which this article is drawn.

What will be the social and environmental consequences of adding another three billion or more people to the world's population? Lester Brown, Gary Gardner and Brian Halweil of the Worldwatch Institute provide a sobering analysis.

mother and childMother and Child, Eritrea© Jenny Matthews/NetworkOne way to understand the consequences of future population growth is to contrast some of the key trends projected for the next half-century with those of the last one.

For example, we have seen a near five-fold growth in the oceanic fish catch and a doubling in the supply available per person, but marine biologists now believe we may have "hit the wall" in oceanic fisheries and the oceans cannot sustain a catch any larger than today's. Thus people born today are likely to see the catch per person cut in half during their lifetime.

Shrinking fields

Grainland per person has been shrinking since mid-century, but the drop projected for the next 50 years means the world will have less grainland per person than India has today. Future population growth is likely to reduce this key number in many societies to the point where they will no longer be able to feed themselves.

Countries such as Ethiopia, India, Iran, Nigeria and Pakistan will see grainland per person shrink by 2050 to less than one tenth of a hectare (one fourth of an acre) - smaller than a typical suburban housing lot in the United States.

The amount of fresh water per person has also shrunk steadily as a result of population growth. Countries experiencing shortages include China and India, along with many smaller ones. And as irrigation water is diverted to industrial and residential uses, the resultant water shortages could reduce food production per person in many countries below the survival level.

The challenge to governments presented by continuing rapid population growth is not limited to natural resources. It also includes education, housing and jobs. During the last half-century, the world has fallen further and further behind in creating jobs, leading to record levels of unemployment and under-employment (see box below).

Tripling of numbers

Fortunately, some 32 industrialised countries are stabilising their populations, and another 39 are on their way to doing so (including China and the United States). But many others still face a doubling or tripling of their numbers and, confronted with mounting health and environmental problems, are in danger of falling back into the first stage of the demographic transition, with high death rates matched by high birth rates.

Three of the more populous ones stand out: Ethiopia, Nigeria and Pakistan. With fertility rates ranging from just under six children per woman in Pakistan, and to nearly seven in Ethiopia, water availability per person is shrinking fast. By 2050 it will be well below the minimum needed to satisfy basic food and residential needs.

In addition there are many less populous countries that are facing potentially overwhelming population growth. Among them are Congo-Kinshasa (Congo Democratic Republic), projected to go from 49 million today to 165 million in 2050; Yemen jumping from 17 to 89 million; and Tanzania going from 32 to 89 million.

Among other countries which face the risk of falling back, rather than going forward to replacement level fertility with low death and birth rates, are Afghanistan, Egypt, Ghana, Haiti, Honduras, India, Myanmar (Burma), the Sudan and Tanzania.

Job creation

Overwhelmed by the problems of finding school places and jobs for swelling numbers of young people, dealing with environmental problems associated with rapid population growth, such as deforestation, increased flooding and soil erosion, and aquifer depletion, they are often unable to respond effectively to emerging threats such as new diseases, and food and water shortages.

For several African countries with high HIV infection levels, this is no longer a hypothetical prospect. In Zimbabwe, for example, more than 1.4 million of its 11 million people are infected with HIV. As a result, death rates are expected meet birth rates by 2020. This would be a tragic new development in world demography.

Other African countries that might also reach zero population growth as rising death rates offset high fertility are Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Swaziland. In each of these, HIV is infecting a fifth of the population. In the absence of a concerted effort to contain the spread of the virus several other African countries could see their population growth slowed to a halt.waterWater may become a source of conflict during this century© Shehzan Noorani/Still PicturesNo one knows how these and other pressures on food and water resources will affect societies, or lead to conflict. Competition for the waters of the Nile as the population of Egypt, the Sudan and Ethiopia grows from 157 million to 388 million is just one possible source of dispute.

The challenge for world leaders now is to help countries maximise their prospects for moving into the final stage of the transition to small healthy families and to stabilise world population below 8 billion.

This will require a worldwide effort to do four things: undertake national carrying capacity assessments, fill the family planning gap, educate young women and adopt a worldwide campaign to stop at two surviving children.

The coming job surge

Over the next 15 years, some 45 million net additions are expected in the global labour force each year and, given the young age structures of their populations, the major additions to the work force will largely be in developing countries, writes Azfar Khan. pollution© Ron Giling/Panos PicturesWhat this means is that over this period of 15 years, 675 million additional jobs will need to be created - about the same as the total number of jobs that existed in the world in 1950 and more than the entire labour force of the industrialised countries in 1990.

Already, lack of sufficient productive employment means that vast numbers are without the means to earn a living and sustain their livelihoods.

As a result, about 40 per cent of the population of the developing world lives in absolute poverty. They have responded by taking on the most rudimentary form of employment, typically in the informal sector, to ensure a basic subsistence. In many cases, poverty has put pressure on parents to send children out to work at a young age.

The creation of jobs depends upon growth and investment which is employment-friendly. Global trends though, appear to be going in the opposite direction. The UNDP's Human Development Report of 1993 observed that, between 1960 and 1987, only a third of the increase in output in the developing countries could be attributed to increase in labour inputs. More than two-thirds of the increase was because of increased capital investments.

In the wake of these developments, the International Labour Office (ILO) for one, has pushed for measures in developing countries - particularly Africa - which have a relatively high labour intensity. These measures, associated with the 'Jobs for Africa' initiative are essentially linked to large scale public sector works programmes, with the hope that as economies improve their infrastructures they would provide a basis for greater employment in the future. The scope of these efforts, is as yet, fairly small.

In the light of this, it seems clear that population growth should be at the top of the agenda of developing country governments. The argument is fairly straightforward: though the additions to the labour force till 2010 have already been born, in the long run reducing rapid population growth can ease the problems of providing social welfare, of coping with rapid urbanisation, generating productive employment for all and alleviating poverty.

However, while population variables may influence socio-economic developments, they are themselves influenced by social, economic and political change. Research has strongly suggested that an augmentation in the social and material well-being of individuals and their households improves their receptivity to modern ideas and influences decision making - for example concerning fertility - in a positive manner.

This requires an integrated approach and a coming together of various development efforts.

Azfar F. Kahn is a Technical Support Services Specialist in Population and Poverty in the Development Policies Department of the International Labour Office