Editor's Blog: Population penny

Posted: 27 June 2008

Two months ago this website speculated that the global food crisis might spur a rethink about population policies and encourage more poor and the fast growing countries to adopt the strategies followed successfully by many countries in Asia and Latin America.

These initiatives have more than halved population growth rates in countries such Thailand, Vietnam and Bangladesh and more recently in Iran, with many beneficial results. It was hoped that the UN Population and Development Conference, held in Cairo in 1994, would lead to another 'great leap forward' for well-funded reproductive health and education programmes, but the good intentions faltered, along with the necessary funding.

Barchart showing contraceptive use and fertility
Barchart showing contraceptive use and fertility
Now, with looming food, energy, water and climate crises, it does seem that the population penny is again beginning to drop. We carry a number of recent stories that illustrate this fact. From the Philippines, our contributing editor, Henrylito Tacio, reports on the way population overshoot is impacting on food, water and forests (see Philippines heading for food and water overshoot). And with food prices rising fast, the former health secretary, Alberto Romualdez, speaks of a 'double whammy', with an extra 2 million mouths to feed each year. Even The Economist, not known for its population concerns, conceded earlier this year that fast population growth, in a country struggling with rising poverty levels and land shortages, "only makes things worse" (see Too many babies?). It also says that "making contraceptives more widely available does seem to bring population growth down" (see chart)." It cites Timor-Leste, another poor and Catholic Asian country, as an extreme case where there are "hardly any contraceptives and an astonishing baby boom."

Malnourished boy Burkina Faso
Malnourished boy Burkina Faso
Malnourished boy Burkina Faso. Burkina Faso's government says 23 per cent acute malnutrition is not a crisis. Aid agencies say the government is the obstacle to making progress. Photo © Nicholas Reader/IRIN
From Africa, two leading demographers argue that reducing fertility is the continent's 'greatest challenge'. It is a view reinforced by Dennis Kawuma in Uganda who concludes that his counry has little hope of reaching its Millennium Development Goals while its population remains on course to nearly double from 29 to 58 million by 2025 (see Soaring numbers hinder Uganda's development goals.

More recently Jonathon Porritt, Director of Forum for the Future and Chairman of the UK Sustainable Development Commission, warned that unless more effort is put into family planning, world population will rise to unsustainable levels. (see:Environmental campaigner speaks out on population. It is a message well understood by President Mubarak of Egypt who has seen the population of his country grow from 40 million to 80 million since he took power in 1981 - and where the country is in on course to exceed 100 million by 2020. He has just launched a new effort to slow this growth, with an $80 million family planning programme.

Water engineers are also voicing their concern. "It is time" says Nick Reeves, Director of the Chartered Institute of Water and Environmental Mangement (CIWEM) "for a grown-up debate on an issue politicians avoid." John Feeney, writing from Boulder, Colorado, is in no doubt that, "in ecological terms we are in overshoot of Earth's carrying capacity for humans." (See Return of the population time bomb.) In reality, the time is long passed for debate. As Jeffrey Sachs, Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, commented recently, action to invest boldly in practical and achievable solutions to our environmental problems is now the only way forward.

John Rowley