She’s a 40-year-old mother of eight, with a ninth child due soon. The family homestead in a Burundi village is too small to provide enough food, and three of the children have quit school for lack of money to pay required fees.
“I regret to have made all those children,” said Godelive Ndageramiwe. “If I were to start over, I would only make two or three.”
By the time Ndageramiwe’s ninth child arrives, the world’s population will have passed a momentous milestone. As of Oct. 31, according to the U.N. Population Fund, there will be 7 billion people sharing Earth’s land and resources.
In Western Europe, Japan and Russia, it will be a milestone amid worries about low birthrates and aging populations. In China and India, the two most populous nations, it’s an occasion to reassess policies that have already slowed once-rapid growth.
But in Burundi, Uganda and the rest of sub-Saharan Africa, the demographic news is mostly sobering as the region staggers under the double burden of the world’s highest birthrates and deepest poverty. The regional population of nearly 900 million could reach 2 billion in 40 years at current rates, accounting for about half of the projected global population growth over that span.
“Most of that growth will be in Africa’s cities, and in those cities it will almost all be in slums where living conditions are horrible,” said John Bongaarts, a vice president of the Population Council, a New York-based research organization.
Is catastrophe inevitable? Not necessarily. But experts say most of Africa – and other high-growth developing nations such as Afghanistan and Pakistan – will be hard-pressed to furnish enough food, water and jobs for their people, especially without major new family-planning initiatives.
“Extreme poverty and large families tend to reinforce each other,” said Lester Brown, the environmental analyst who heads the Earth Policy Institute in Washington. “The challenge is to intervene in that cycle and accelerate the shift to smaller families.”
Without such intervention, Brown said, food and water shortages could fuel political destabilization in developing regions.
The International Water Management Institute predicts that by 2025 about 1.8 billion people will live in places suffering from severe water scarcity.
According to demographers, the world’s population didn’t reach 1 billion until 1804, and it took 123 years to hit the 2 billion mark in 1927. Then the pace accelerated – 3 billion in 1959, 4 billion in 1974, 5 billion in 1987, 6 billion in 1998.
Looking ahead, the U.N. projects that the world population will reach 8 billion by 2025, 10 billion by 2083. But the numbers could be much higher or lower, depending on such factors as access to birth control, infant mortality rates and average life expectancy – which has risen from 48 years in 1950 to 69 years today.
“Overall, this is not a cause for alarm – the world has absorbed big gains since 1950,” said Bongaarts. But he cautioned that strains are intensifying: rising energy and food prices, environmental stresses, more than 900 million people undernourished.
“For the rich, it’s totally manageable,” Bongaarts said. “It’s the poor, everywhere, who will be hurt the most.”
Population-related challenges vary dramatically around the world. Associated Press reporters on four continents examined some of most distinctive examples:
The Asian giants
It’s 6 p.m. in Mumbai, India’s financial hub, and millions of workers swarm out of their offices, headed to railway stations for a ride home. Every few minutes, as a train enters the station, the crowd surges forward.
Across India, the teeming slums, congested streets, and crowded trains and trams are testimony to the country’s burgeoning population. Already the second most populous country, with 1.2 billion people, India is expected to overtake China around 2030 when its population soars to an estimated 1.6 billion.
But even as the numbers increase, the pace of the growth has slowed. Demographers say India’s fertility rate – now 2.6 children per woman – should fall to 2.1 by 2025 and to 1.8 by 2035.
More than half of India’s population is under 25, and some policy planners say this “youth dividend” could fuel a productive surge over the next few decades. But population experts caution that the dividend could prove to be a liability without vast social investments.
For now, China remains the most populous nation, with 1.34 billion people. In the past decade it added 73.9 million, more than the population of France or Thailand.
Nonetheless, its growth has slowed dramatically and the population is projected to start shrinking in 2027. By 2050, according to some demographers, it will be smaller than it is today.
In the 1970s, Chinese women had five to six children each on average. Today China has a fertility rate – the number of children the average woman is expected to have in her lifetime – of around 1.5, well below the 2.1 replacement rate that demographers say is needed to keep populations stable in developed countries.
Three decades of strict family planning rules that limit urban families to one child and rural families to two helped China achieve a rapid decline in fertility but the policy has brought problems as well.
Before long, there will be too few young Chinese people to easily support a massive elderly population.
Western Europe and the U.S.
Spain used to give parents 2,500 euros for every newborn child to encourage families to reverse the country’s low birthrate. But the checks stopped coming with Spain’s austerity measures, raising the question of who will pay the bills to support the elderly in the years ahead.
It’s a question bedeviling many European countries that have grappled for years over how to cope with shrinking birthrates and aging populations – and are now faced with a financial crisis that has forced some to cut back on family-friendly government incentives.
In 2010, for the fourth consecutive year, more Italians died than were born, according to the national statistics agency. Italy’s population nonetheless grew slightly to 60.6 million due to immigration.
Unlike many countries in Europe, France’s population is growing slightly but steadily every year. It has one of the highest birthrates in the European Union with around 2 children per woman.
One reason is immigration to France by Africans with large-family traditions, but it’s also due to family-friendly legislation. The government offers public preschools, subsidies to all families that have more than one child, generous maternity leave, and tax exemptions for employers of nannies.
Like France, the United States has one of the highest population growth rates among industrialized nations. Its fertility rate is just below the replacement rate of 2.1 children per woman, but its population has been increasing by almost 1 percent annually due to immigration. With 312 million people, the U.S. is the third most populous country after China and India.
Lagos, Nigeria, is expected to overtake Cairo soon as Africa’s largest city. Private water vendors there do a brisk business in the many neighborhoods that otherwise lack access to potable water. Periodic blackouts extend for hours, days, sometimes weeks.
Such is daily life in Nigeria’s commercial capital, where the population is estimated at 15 million and growing at 6 percent or more each year. Problems with traffic congestion, sanitation and water supplies are staggering; a recent article in UN-Habitat said two-thirds of the residents live in poverty.
The rest of Nigeria isn’t growing as fast – estimates of its growth rate range from 2 percent to 3.2 percent. But it’s already Africa’s most populous country, with more than 160 million people.
Ndyanabangi Bannet, the U.N. Population Fund’s deputy representative in Nigeria, notes that 60 percent of the population is under 30 and needs to be accommodated with education, training and health care.
In Uganda, another fast-growing country, President Yoweri Museveni used to be disdainful of population control and urged Ugandans, especially in rural areas, to continue having large families.
Recently, the government has conceded that its 3.2 population growth rate must be curbed because the economy can’t keep pace. “The government has been convinced that unless it invests in reproductive health, Uganda is destined to a crisis,” said Hannington Burunde of the Uganda Population Secretariat.
Among those who are struggling is John Baliruno, 45, of Mpigi in central Uganda, a father of nine.
“I never intended to have such a big number,” he said. “I with my wife had no knowledge of family planning and ended up producing one child after another. Now I cannot properly feed them.”
Looking ahead, he’s pessimistic.
“The environment is being destroyed by the growing population. Trees are being cut down in big numbers and even now we can’t get enough firewood to cook food,” he said. “In the near future, we will starve.”
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