POPULATION SPECIAL REPORT UK parliamentarians deplore 'the lost decade'

Posted: 15 February 2007

Author: John Rowley

A whole decade has been lost in the struggle to slow population growth in the poorest developing countries, says a hard-hitting all-party report by UK parliamentarians. It warns that the Millennium Development Goals, which aim to eradicate poverty and ensure a sustainable environment, will be 'difficult or impossible to achieve' unless much greater efforts are made to slow soaring numbers in the least developed countries, where more than 90 per cent of the growth is projected to occur.

That is the central message of this clearly argued and well illustrated report, which draws upon evidence collected from experts around the world. It says the neglect of the population issue in the years following the UN Cairo Conference on Population and Development in 1994, has taken place despite the fact that global population is projected to grow from 6 billion in the year 2000 to between 8 and 10.5 billion by 2050.

World population projections
World population projections

As a result, many of the poorest countries are facing insupportable population increases. Ethiopia, for example, has seen its numbers grow from 42 million at the time of the infamous famine in 1984 to 75 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.

Sub-Saharan Africa, in particular, faces a poverty crisis, says the report. Between 1990 and 2001, the numbers living in extreme poverty rose by a small percentage, from 44.6 per cent to 46.4 per cent. But because of population growth, the numbers of people in extreme poverty grew from 231 million to 318 million - an increase of 38 per cent or 87 million people.

Seven goals

"The rapid pace of population growth in much of Africa and some other parts of the world, despite global efforts, means we are not even successful in keeping the numbers living in extreme poverty stable," says Richard Ottaway MP, who chaired the parliamentarians' inquiry.

But it is not only poverty that is affected by this explosion in numbers. The second of seven Millennium Goals is to achieve universal primary education by 2015. But says the report, in high population growth countries the numbers of school-age children can double every 20 years, requiring and extra 2 million school teachers, just to stand still. And the challenge grows with time as almost 30 per cent of world population is under the age of 15.

Three other Millennium Goals, to promote gender equality, reduce child mortality and improve maternal health are all directly related to the ability of women to control their fertility, says the report. It empowers them to make choices, enables them to have smaller, planned families and reduces the risk of dying from pregnancy-related causes.

Family planning funding diminishing
Family planning funding diminishing

Equally, the goal to combat HIV/Aids, malaria and other diseases is easier to achieve if the pressures of population-driven poverty and urbanisation are reduced. But. at present, the sheer scale of the Aids epidemic has captured the world's attention, reducing family planning budgets so that many poor countries find themselves short of condoms, pills and other contraceptive supplies.

Another reasons for the neglect of the population issue and of family planning was the shift, at Cairo, to the broader reproductive health strategy, which "led to an under-appreciation of population size and growth alone." Allied to this were 'conservative and religious forces' that have all conspired to put the emphasis on ageing of the populations in Europe and Japan and strengthened the assumption that issues of population pressure were over. "It has gone unnoticed that for the world's poorest people, there is often no choice over the issue of fertility, for there is no access to the means to prevent unwanted pregnancies" says the report.

At the same time, it said, the Millennium Goals omitted any specific demographic or reproductive health goals or targets - a failure that will now be put right by the promised addition a new goal calling for the universal access to reproductive health care by 2015. At the moment, it points out, in western and middle Africa contraceptive use exceeds 10 per cent in only two countries.

Unmet need for family planning
Unmet need for family planning
Environmental pressures

Finally the report turns to the environment. It concludes "reversing the loss of environmental resources cannot be achieved in the context of rapid or even moderate population growth without addressing the demographic factor..."

"Population pressures" it says, "are adding to the difficulty of obtaining environmental sustainability, particularly regarding agricultural lands, forests, water and biodiversity."

The Millennium target to double access to clean water and basic sanitation by 2015 "will be made increasingly difficult as populations grow," the report says. Today, 1.1 billion people lack access to safe drinking water but by 2025 it is estimated that two-thirds of the world's population will face moderate or severe water shortages.

The report instances the case of Egypt where the fall in fertility appears to have stalled at 3.5 children and the population is projected to grow very fast. Meanwhile, the pressure on the waters of the Nile is growing from all ten countries in the Nile basin, with uncertain impact on water available for Egypt. "The difficulty is that Egypt's population and the populations of Ethiopia, Sudan and the remaining countries of the Nile basin are projected to double by 2050."

Fresh water availability
Fresh water availability

On deforestation, the report quotes evidence that Africa has the fastest rate of forest loss in the world, and says population pressures have increased the amount of wood felled for fuel, clearing the land for food cultivation and overgrazing. Ethiopia, with a population increasing at 3 per cent each year, has been clearing forest and vegetation at an alarming rate to meet its increasing requirements for food, fibre and energy.

Madagascar has tripled its population in 50 years "forcing new generations of farmers to move further upslope, burning the remaining forests from hillsides and planting in the thin soils. Surveys have shown that many Malagasy women would like to have fewer children, but have no access to family planning."

As a result of growing human numbers and farming on fragile lands, per capita yields in Africa have fallen by as much as 30 per cent since 1970, says the report. And some experts believe it could halve in another 40 years as a result of land degradation. And the problem is not limited to Africa. In many rural areas of the developing world, agricultural improvements are lagging behind the growth in population, resulting in land degradation and reduced yields. In recent years production in Pakistan has fallen by nearly one per cent a year as "in effect Pakistan's farmers are losing the battle with population growth."

Growing slums

On another environmental target, to bring about 'a significant improvement in the lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers' the report points out that one in three of today's urban dwellers already live in slums, and that the number is rising rapidly. Some 72 per cent of the African urban population live in slums and squatter settlements 'in unfavourable conditions for health and social stability.'

Mathare Valley Slum, Nairobi, Kenya. Photo: Justo Casal
Mathare Valley Slum, Nairobi, Kenya. Photo: Justo Casal
Mathare Valley Slum, Nairobi, Kenya. There are almost one million residents living in this slum area, the majority of whom have no access to water or sanitation facilities.© Justo Casal

"Sustainable improvements in the lives of slum and shanty town dwellers will be difficult or impossible without slowing both migration from rural areas and high population growth in urban areas" it concludes. The report sums up its recommendations by stating that there is a large and unmet need for family planning, especially among the 2 billion people who live on less than $2 a day. It calls on donor agencies., governments, the World Bank and development banks to increase their support for family planning. It also calls on them to:

  • ensure availability of contraceptive supplies

  • eliminate the wide range of barriers to family planning

  • use available resources cost-effectively

  • provide technical assistance to developing country governmentsto prioritise and monitor resources for family planning and reproductive health

  • encourage development, environment and reproductive health/family planning communities to work together on the problems caused by rapid population growth.

The full report 'Return of the Population Growth Factor. Its Impact upon the Millennium Development Goals by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Population, Development and Reproductive Health, may be downloaded here.

Related links:

To read the Planet 21 submission to the Hearings click here.