North-South demographic divide opening fast

Posted: 20 August 2004

India is set to overtake China as the world's most populous country by 2050, while the United States will increase it's population by 45 per cent over the next 45 years, according to the latest forecast by the Population Reference Bureau (PRB).

According to PRB's 2004 World Population Data Sheet, currently "nearly 99 per cent of all population increase takes place in poor countries, while population size is static or declining in rich nations."

In effect, this means that, as a group, industrialised countries are projected to increase their population by 4 per cent, while developing countries will increase their numbers by more than 55 per cent. Overall, PRB predicts that the earth's population will reach 9.3 billion in 2050, compared with 6.4 billion today.

"The demographic contrasts between Japan and Nigeria, two countries with roughly equal population sizes today, illustrate the differing challenges faced by rich and poor countries," said Carl Haub, PRB senior demographer and the 2004 World Population Data Sheet's author.

"Clearly, Nigeria has millions of young people to educate and employ. Vast investments are needed to provide a higher quality of life for Nigeria's growing population, while Japan must find ways to take care of more and more retired people and still maintain an adequate workforce," notes Haub.

US population boom

Among industrialised nations, only the United States, the world's third most populous country after China and India, is experiencing significant population growth. The country's population is expected to climb from 249 million people today, to nearly 420 million in 2050. PRB attributes this increase to both increasing birthrates and immigration.

India's population is predicted to grow from 1 billion people today, to 1.63 billion in 2050, overtaking China, which is set to grow from currently 1.3 billion to 1.4 billion people in 2050.

In contrast, says PRB, Western European populations will shrink due to low levels of fertility, as couples have fewer than two children - too few to replace themselves when they die. Below replacement levels of fertility in Europe have raised concerns over a burgeoning ageing population, which is set to have profound economic, social and political consequences in the region. At the same time, a decline in population growth will mean fewer working-age people, resulting in the need for greater immigration, warns PRB.

However, "recent population slowing in Europe has created the impression that world population is well on the way to stability, said Haub. "But so many demographic anomalies exist that the future is uncertain."

Impact of AIDS

One such demographic anomaly is the impact of AIDS. "Despite the large numbers of deaths from AIDS, populations continue to grow in many heavily affected regions," says Lori Ashford, technical Director of Policy Information at PRB, "although the growth is far less than it would be in the absence of AIDS."

In Botswana, Lesotho, Mozambique, Zambia, and Zimbabwe average life expectancy has fallen to age 40 or less as a result of additional deaths due to the disease. PRB predicts that AIDS will trigger a population decline in Botswana, Swaziland, and in South Africa, which has the highest absolute number of infections of any country in the world totalling 5.3 million.

Despite the high death toll from AIDS, Africa's population overall is projected to grow by more than 1 billion by 2050 because of continued high fertility.

"From a global perspective," says Ashford, "changes occurring in the largest countries will have the greatest impact on world population. But in any individual country, demographic changes can have profound implications for the economy, the environment, health and quality of life."

The 2004 World Population Data Sheet predictions are based on fertility rates, infant mortality rates, life expectancy and age structure, as well as contraception availability and the prevalence of AIDS.

Related links:

2004 World Population Data Sheet

World Population Highlights 2004 (This policy brief provides highlights of the 2004 World Population Data Sheet).