The challenges ahead for a population of 6 billion

Earth's population is expected to cross 6 billion today. While Africa

Today, the 6 billionth baby will be born, a milestone of multiple dimensions.

In a way that child - probably born somewhere in Asia or Africa - represents a triumph of human ingenuity in the face of dire predictions. No longer, by and large, are demographers issuing Malthusian forecasts of global destruction from overpopulation. Revolutions in food production have kept pace with population growth.

But child No. 6 billion also comes laden with concerns for the future. In just 12 years, the planet is expected to add another billion people. And by 2050, according to the UN's projections, global population will approach 9 billion.

"The question is, can we absorb another 3 billion over the next 50 years?" asks John Bongaarts, director of policy research for the Population Council in New York. "The answer is yes. But we would be better off if we had a magic wand and could make this population go away. Societies would be better off without this additional population growth."

The developed, industrial world has, on average, stopped growing. The United States' population is still rising, but only because of immigration. Japan's population is holding steady, and Europe is declining a bit. So the globe's next few billion people will be added to the poor countries of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. And within those countries, the growth will be focused on cities, and particularly the slums.

Most of the world's nations now understand the need to provide reproductive health services to couples, and in particular to offer choices, not mandates. By just filling unmet demand for birth control, advocates say, the global birthrate would drop by 20 percent.

Each corner of the world has its own challenges, and successes, in dealing with population growth. Following are reports from three continents, chronicling the efforts of each to anticipate population needs in the next millennium.

Mixed results from Mexico's efforts MEXICO CITY Mexico is an example of a country where the population "glass" is half full - and half empty.

One of the world's most successful fertility reduction programs has significantly reduced the average number of children born per woman over the past 25 years. Mexico's total of 100 million people is about 50 million less than what demographers projected in 1970 for 2000.

The smaller number of dependents per family presents an opportunity for increased family economic well-being that should allow Mexico to reduce its high poverty rates. Yet for too long, Mexico's policymakers placed too much stock in contraception and too little in accompanying human development programs.

The result is that while the average Mexican woman who had seven children in 1965 has what averages to 2.5 today, poverty rates have not declined accordingly - and in fact in recent years have increased.

"The mistake made was the supposition that with a substantial fall in the population growth rate alone, development levels would increase and average living conditions would improve," says Carlos Welti Chanes, a demographer at Mexico City's National Autonomous University. Mexico has learned that a population policy "is much more than just anticonception," he says.

Dr. Welti, coordinator of the regionwide Latin American Program for Population Activities, says the picture across most of Central and South America is similar to Mexico's. While most countries have done well in reducing fertility, insufficient attention and resources have been placed in such areas as education, women's development, rural development (to counter migration), and children's health.

The irony for Mexico is that a country long considered "young" is beginning to age rapidly. By 2010 a quarter of the population will be 65 or older. And smaller families will mean that the elderly will have fewer dependents to count on for their financial well-being. "The thinking was always that lower fertility rates would free up savings to spend on other population segments, but the problem is that the elderly are costlier than children," Welti says. And with more than 80 percent of the aging population outside Mexico's social-security system, the scenario is set for a major crisis among Mexico's elderly.

In Latin America, "the focus on a young population has made the problem of street children universally known, but in the future we're going to be increasingly confronted with street elderly," Welti says.

"In the past in demographic surveys, you'd find a lot of women saying they wanted many children because they felt assured that at least one would do well and take care of her in her old age," says Welti. "But with just two children to count on, the possibilities are considerably reduced." - Howard LaFranchi

Sky-high growth, and challenges, in Africa NAIROBI, KENYA With 622 million people, sub-Saharan Africa has one of the highest populations in the world. And the average fertility rate is 6.1 percent, which causes the population to double every 25 years.

On average, only 18 percent of adults of reproductive age use contraception - and this in a continent where people are 22 percent poorer than they were in 1975. But largely because of the AIDS pandemic, African governments have taken increasingly aggressive steps to address the issues of reproductive health and population control.

Kenya, with a population of nearly 29 million, was the first country in black Africa to view unchecked population growth as a serious impediment to growth and economic prosperity. It was the first country to develop a population policy in 1967; Ghana followed in 1969. Today, 25 African countries have such policies, which include sex education, AIDS awareness programs, and promotion and distribution of contraception. Urbanization, rising costs, higher literacy rates, and better infant survival rates have also restrained population growth.

In Kenya, where the fertility rate averages 5.1 percent, couples now say they want an average of four children, down from seven in the 1980s. Between 1982 and 1994, the availability of contraception grew at a faster pace in sub-Saharan Africa than in any other developing region. Still, 13 percent of Kenya's population has AIDS, according to the National AIDS and Sexually Transmitted Diseases Control Program. In many pockets, infection rates far exceed the national average, soaring as high as 50 and 60 percent. There are 350,000 AIDS orphans and 66,000 children with HIV.

According to Lewis Odhiambo of the University of Nairobi, the mortality rate among Kenyans has increased from 9 per 1,000 population in the late 80s to 13 per 1,000 population. The rise, says Dr. Odhiambo, is almost entirely due to AIDS.

The deaths of more than 4 million Africans are attributed AIDS, and more than 21 million people are currently living with the disease. AIDS has also led to a sharp decline in life expectancy. Odhiambo estimates that Kenyans' life expectancy has been cut by 10 years, from an average of 64.5 during 1995-2000 to 54.7 years. - Lara Santoro

An aging population in Europe LONDON Europe will soon be a "gray continent."

According to Eurostat, the European Union's statistical agency, the trend across Europe will be for birthrates to be in sustained decline.

The result, it says, will be a steadily declining and aging population, with increasing pressure on a contracting tax base to provide economic and social support for older people.

In 1997, Italy became the first nation in world history to have more people age 60 and older than those age 20 and younger. Last year Greece, Spain, and Germany edged closer to the same situation.

Population numbers in the EU's 15 states, according to Eurostat, will grow slightly in the next 25 years. But by 2050 they will have fallen back to the current 368 million, then keep on falling.

David Coleman, lecturer in demography at Oxford University, says European women are choosing to have their first baby later in life. In 1970, the average age for a European woman to have her firstborn was 23-1/2. "Now it is 27," Dr. Coleman says.

He says that the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, which caused a reduction or end to state-paid child-support policies, produced a sharp fall in birthrates in those countries. "In the communist era people tended to vote against their regimes with low birthrates," Coleman says.

In Scandinavian countries, attempts to boost birthrates through tax incentives and cash support for larger families were launched two decades ago, and the trend was temporarily slowed. But between 1990 and 1998 it picked up again. In that period Sweden's birthrate fell from 2.12 per woman to 1.42 today.

In southern Europe the trend is much more pronounced. Even Roman Catholic countries, known traditionally to favor large families, are registering low birthrates.

In Italy and Spain, Eurostat reports, women nowadays bear what averages out to be only 1.17 and 1.18 babies respectively. By 2050, if current trends hold, Italy's population will have shrunk by about 20 million.

By the year 2050, Germany (current pop. 82 million) expects to have 5 million citizens over age 80. The effect of this will be felt most in the sphere of government pension obligations to citizens. According to government figures, state-funded pension liabilities amount to 127 percent of the gross domestic product. In tiny Luxembourg, the liability is 230 percent of the GDP. -- Alexander MacLeod

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.