The people equation

"We are inside a bottleneck of overpopulation and wasteful consumption," maintains eminent Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson.

In his critically acclaimed book "The Future of Life," Mr. Wilson observes that the world is now engaged in a race between "forces that are destroying the living environment and those that can be harnessed to save it."

The world's population now exceeds 6 billion and continues to grow by more than 75 million each year, with virtually all of the increase in the least developed countries.

But the poorest 20 percent of the world's people account for just 1.3 percent of private consumption expenditures, while the wealthiest 20 percent account for 86 percent of private consumption.

Meanwhile, 1.1 billion people in less developed countries lack access to clean water. Some 90 to 95 percent of sewage and 70 percent of industrial wastes in developing countries are dumped, untreated, into surface waters, contaminating the supply for drinking. And while approximately half of the world's biodiversity is contained in the tropical forests of the less developed world, at current rates of deforestation the last significant concentrations of tropical forest could be harvested by the middle of this century.

In the world's poorest countries,160,000 people migrate from rural areas to towns and cities every day. These very cities face escalating environmental health challenges arising from both traffic congestion and people crammed too closely together in inner-city slums or shantytowns that lack access to basic sanitation and health services.

There are an astounding 25 million environmental refugees in the world today – a number equivalent to the population of North Korea or Uganda. Natural disasters are intensified by the poorest people in the poorest countries being forced to occupy the most fragile land and thereby being placed in harm's way from the mudslides of Brazil to the monsoon floods of Bangladesh.

Against this bleak backdrop, heads of states and other key government officials will convene at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa, Aug. 26 to Sept. 5. Their mission is to assess the progress since the 1992 International Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro and the steps required to accelerate Agenda 21, its blueprint for rescuing the planet from the ravages of environmental degradation and resource depletion. On the surface, this high-level conference could not be timelier.

But in the preparations for the Johannesburg meeting, there has been a strange silence on population issues that are at the very core of the coming deliberations. By inexplicably ignoring or neglecting the simple truth that the world's people are not only the principal beneficiaries of sustainable development, but also a chief obstacle for achieving it, the summit in South Africa could become little more than an expensive gabfest.

Following the Earth Summit a decade ago, Richard Gardner, a special adviser to the United Nations both in Rio and at the Stockholm Conference on Human Environment 20 years earlier, said: "Without greatly expanded efforts to slow and eventually stabilize population growth, no action plan for sustainable development will be worth the paper it is written on."

The final document of the Johannesburg summit must at least call for urgent action to ensure universal access to voluntary family planning and reproductive health services, and the empowerment of women as partners in development.

In the race to protect the world's environment and resources from the forces destroying them, Wilson says, "If the race is won, humanity can emerge in better condition than when it entered, and with most of the diversity of life still intact."

Participants in the Johannesburg summit should not just talk about that race, they must resolve to win it.

• Werner Fornos is president of the Population Institute.

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