Rate of population growth slowing

Posted: 27 February 2003

The world's human population will increase from today's 6.3 billion to 8.9 billion by 2050, according to the World Population Prospects: The 2002 Revision, published by the UN Population Division. This means a smaller increase of 2.6 billion, instead of the 3 billion projected two years ago. Nearly all of the projected growth will occur in developing countries.

About half of the difference in growth projections is due to lower expectations of future fertility rates, the number of births a woman is expected to have in her lifetime. The rest is largely due to the growing impact of the AIDS pandemic.

For the first time, fertility rates in most developing countries are projected eventually to fall below 2.1 children per women, the level needed to ensure the long-term replacement of the population.

The 2002 Revision foresees that this fall below replacement level will happen in three out of four developing countries by 2050. Previous forecasts tended to assume that total fertility rates would stabilise around the two-child level.

"However," World Population Prospects cautions, "the realisation of these projections is contingent on ensuring that couples have access to family planning and that efforts to arrest the current spread of the HIV/AIDS epidemic are successful in reducing its growth momentum."

If fertility in all countries remained at current levels the total population of the planet could more than double by 2050, reaching 12.8 billion, it said. The 2002 Revision does not include long-term forecasts beyond 2050, but Dr Joseph Chamie, Director of the UN Population division told this website that his best guess for the future peak of world population is now "between 9 and 10 billion."

The revised projections also reflect a more dire assessment of the impact of HIV/AIDS, highlighting the urgent need for more global action to prevent the spread of the pandemic as well as to treat and care for HIV/AIDS-affected people, especially in developing countries.

About half of the reduction in projected population growth rate "results from an increase in the number of projected deaths, the majority stemming from higher levels of HIV prevalence." The report projects a cumulative total of 278 million AIDS-related deaths by 2050, in the 53 most affected countries.

Smaller families

The report shows that countries' investment in their people's reproductive health needs, including family planning, has contributed to lower fertility in developing countries - now around three children per woman compared to six in 1960 - and to slower population growth.

Continued investment in reproductive health and family planning programmes is critical. The report notes that if women have, on average, half a child more than the Population Division's "most likely" projection scenario, world population could rise to 10.6 billion by 2050.

The new projections also illustrate the great diversity among countries in the speed at which their population growth rates will decline, with the fall of the rates in the poorest States lagging far behind those of others. Moreover, the population of the 49 least developed countries is expected to grow from today's 668 million people to 1.7 billion by 2050.

"The revised estimates affirm that international efforts in the field of population have been a success," said the Executive Director of the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), Thoraya Ahmed Obaid. "Today, women and men in large numbers are making their own decisions on birth spacing and family size, contributing to slower population growth. These decisions, especially by women, are benefiting not only individuals but also their families, communities and nations."

Preventable deaths

However, the need for health care remains high, with a lot yet to be done, she said. An estimated 350 million couples still lack access to the full range of modern family planning methods.

World Population Prospects projects that 10 people will die of AIDS every minute over the next 50 years. In addition, 515,000 women die annually from preventable childbirth-related causes and 47 per cent of developing-country births are not attended by skilled persons. While many nations have made investments to deal with these problems, the poorest countries lack the resources to do so.

"We call on all donors to meet their commitments in order to combat the threat of HIV/AIDS, reduce maternal deaths and disabilities, reduce poverty and meet other Millennium Development Goals," Ms. Obaid said. "Developing countries need additional resources to save the lives of women, expand maternal health care, increase access to family planning and facilitate socio-economic development for their rising populations."

  • The report also draws attention to population aging. Globally, the number of people aged over 60 will nearly triple from 606 million in 2000 to nearly 1.9 billion by 2050, it says.