New population projections 'a wake-up call'

Posted: 14 March 2007

New world population projections for the year 2050 by the United Nations expect world population to rise by 2.5 billion people from today's 6.7 billion to 9.2 billion in 2050. This is a slight increase on the figures projected in 2004 of 9.1 billion.

According to Thoraya Ahmed Obaid, Executive Director of the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), the projections are "yet another wake-up call to the urgency of giving couples the means to exercise their human right to freely determine the sizes of their families."

The median forecast for the world's population, according to the report, assumes that fertility will continue falling in developing countries. If it stays at current rates, the world will add about 5 billion people, nearing 12 billion by 2050, with the less developed nations' population increasing to 10.6 billion, instead of 7.9 billion.

"Currently, about 200 million women in these countries lack access to safe and effective contraceptive services," said Ms.Obaid. "Funding for family planning must be increased to meet the needs of these women, not only to determine the world's future, but also to prevent unintended pregnancies and reduce maternal and infant death."

"The projections should remind leaders of their 2005 World Summit commitment to provide universal access to reproductive health by 2015, including family planning, to free women from unintended childbearing and empower them to help reduce poverty," said Ms. Obaid. "We must work together to expand access to comprehensive reproductive health services, such as skilled attendance at birth, emergency obstetric care and the prevention and treatment of sexually transmitted infections, including HIV/AIDS."

To see how far short funding for family planning and related education and reproductive health services has fallen behind past promises UNFPA points to the targets set in the Programme of Action of the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo.

This puts the 2005 target for donor assistance for family planning alone at $3.8 billion. But UNFPA surveys surveys show that the actual amount received in 2004 was only a fraction of that at $441.6 million - or a little higher since some of the funding earmarked for reproductive health may be for family planning.

Ageing population

World Population Prospects also makes projections on population ageing and other trends that are mostly prevalent in developed countries.

"Population ageing is a twentieth-century phenomenon resulting partly from improvements in life expectancy," said Ms. Obaid. "It also coincides with history's largest-ever cohort of young people. The challenge is to meet the needs of older persons while at the same time meeting the urgent needs of the young, especially in developing countries."

"Rich nations concerned with too-low fertility should emulate neighbours that have successfully introduced family-friendly policies to make careers and parenthood more compatible," she added." The policies include flexible work schedules, paid parental leave, and the provision of day-care services, as recommended by the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development. "They should create an environment that makes it easier for men and women to combine parenthood and careers. No one should be forced to choose one or the other."

Migrant flow

According to the 2006 Revision, the expected increase in human numbers by 2.5 billion over the next 43 years, is equivalent to the total size of the world population in 1950. It will be absorbed mostly by the less developed regions, whose population is projected to rise from 5.4 billion in 2007 to 7.9 billion in 2050.

In contrast, the population of the more developed regions is expected to remain largely unchanged at 1.2 billion, and would have declined, were it not for the projected net migration from developing to developed countries, which is expected to average 2.3 million persons annually.

As a result of declining fertility and increasing longevity, the populations of more and more countries are ageing rapidly. Between 2005 and 2050, half of the increase in the world population will be accounted for by a rise in the population aged 60 years or over, whereas the number of children (persons under age 15) will decline slightly.

Furthermore, in the more developed regions, the population aged 60 or over is expected to nearly double (from 245 million in 2005 to 406 million in 2050), whereas that of persons under age 60 will likely decline (from 971 million in 2005 to 839 million in 2050).

Declining fertility

But these projections will only be achieved if fertility continues to decline in developing countries, says the UN. According to the 2006 Revision, fertility in the less developed countries as a whole is expected to drop from 2.75 children per woman in 2005-2010 to 2.05 in 2045-2050.

The reduction expected in the group of 50 least developed countries is even sharper: from 4.63 children per woman to 2.50 children per woman. To achieve such reductions, it is essential that access to family planning expands in the poorest countries.

The urgency of realising these reductions in birthrates is brought into focus by considering that, if fertility were to remain constant at the levels estimated for 2000-2005, the population of the less developed regions would increase to 10.6 billion. That is, without further reductions of fertility, the world population could increase by twice as many people as those alive in 1950.

The projected population trends also depend on achieving a major increase in the proportion of AIDS patients who get antiretroviral therapy to treat the disease, and on the success of efforts to control the further spread of HIV.

In projecting the effect of the disease, it is assumed that 31 of the most affected countries will manage to provide, by 2015, antiretroviral treatment to 70 per cent or more of the persons suffering from AIDS. In the rest of the affected countries, treatment levels are expected to be lower, reaching between 40 and 50 per cent by 2015. It is also assumed that persons receiving treatment survive, on average, 17.5 years instead of the 10 years expected in the absence of treatment.

Mainly as a result of these assumptions, and owing to the downward revision of the prevalence of HIV/AIDS in some countries, 32 million fewer deaths are projected to occur during 2005-2020 in the 62 most affected countries than would have occurred if death rates were the same as in the 2004 Revision. These changes also contribute to make the population projected to 2050 in the 2006 Revision larger than that in the 2004 Revision (9.2 billion vs. 9.1 billion).

For more details of World Population Prospects: The 2006 Revision, see the website of the Population Division of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs at www.unpopulation.org