WASHINGTON — THE world's population explosion keeps booming along - but now at a somewhat slower pace. After a 25-year struggle, family planning programs are finally beginning to reduce fertility rates even in the most difficult areas, such as Asia and Africa.
Nations like Thailand, China, and Colombia have made remarkable breakthroughs. In just eight years, Thailand lowered its fertility rate from 6.5 children per family down to only 3.5 children. Today Thailand's fertility rate has fallen further to just 2.2 - barely above replacement levels.
``Even in high-fertility ... areas such as south Asia and Africa, today's women are having fewer children compared with 1960-65,'' reports the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in its latest study released on Tuesday, May 14.
Population officials hail the news, but also warn that the earth's human habitants could nearly double to 10 billion in 2050, and reach 11.6 billion by 2150. Such growth, most of which would come in the poorest countries, could result in famine and extensive damage to the environment, experts warn.
Sharon Camp, senior vice president of the Population Crisis Committee, says that ``if we work hard at it in this decade, we could reach replacement levels in the next 25 years worldwide. And within 50 to 60 years, we would put the world population problem behind us.''
The United Nations estimates the world must spend at least $9 billion a year by 2000 to bring population growth under control. That is about twice the $4 billion to $4.5 billion now being spent annually.
``The doubling of resources needed ... is the greatest challenge facing the population community today,'' says the UNFPA report. ``It can ... be achieved by a year-on-year increase of 7 percent during the 1990s.''
Currently, $3.5 billion in family-planning money comes from developing countries, while $675 million comes from nations like the United States, Britain, and Germany.
The US is the largest international donor, while Japan is second. The largest giver on a per capita basis is the Netherlands.
EVEN though the United States gives nearly half of all outside assistance, population specialists say this country is missing an important opportunity. Because huge numbers of people are just moving into their child-bearing years, the next decade may be the most critical of this century in the fight against over-population.
But Dr. Camp says:
``President Bush is not at all interested in this, as far as I can tell. The Bush administration places no priority on this as a development issue. The ghost of the Reagan administration is still with us. They see it all tangled up with the domestic abortion debate, so they figure the less said, the better.''
Meanwhile, the UNFPA report highlights these warnings:
* Developing countries are suffering from a serious decline in their ability to feed themselves.
Twenty years ago, they imported only 20 million tons of grain. By 1983-85, that was up to 69 million tons. It will rise to 112 million tons by 2000.
* Population growth is forcing farmers in developing countries to till soil that is already poor, and getting worse.
Today an estimated 580 million people live in ``absolute poverty on marginal or fragile land.''
* Rural poverty is driving millions of people into cities.
In more than 85 countries, city populations doubled in the past 10 years. By 2000, urban populations in the developing world will be nearly double those in the industrialized nations.
* Population growth is putting new strains on ecosystems ``with unknown but potentially serious effects on food supply in the immediate area, and on global climate change.''
The good news, says Camp, is that people in the poorest countries want help in having fewer children. The bads news is, they may not get it.