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Population and human development - the key connections
Posted: 30 Apr 2004

We cannot confront the massive challenges of poverty, hunger, disease and environmental destruction unless we address issues of population and reproductive health.
Thoraya Ahmed Obaid, Executive Director, UN Population Fund (UNFPA)

Concern over the world's booming human population - which has grown from three to over six billion in just 40 years - has abated somewhat as birth rates have fallen right across the world. But there is still a long way to go before numbers stabilise at somewhere between eight and 11 billion - and some countries, such as Pakistan or Nigeria, are on course to triple their numbers by the middle of this 21st century.

Globally, many experts are concerned that the earth's 'carrying capacity' is already overstrained, and worry that the huge impending increases in consumption in countries such as India and China will add enormously to the burden of greenhouse gases which threaten to heat the planet - not to mention all the other demands which increases in both population and consumption are putting on the earth's natural systems.

Nor is the problem confined to the so-called 'developing world'. The United States, for example, produces a quarter of the world's carbon dioxide emissions with only five per cent of the global population. And, unlike Europe, the US population is growing fast - from 200 million in 1970, to nearly 300 million today and a projected 420 million in 2050.

One of the complicating facts is that much of the world's population - especially in the South - is very young, with plenty of potential to reproduce. So that although the rate of population growth began to decline some 30 years ago, annual additions to the human population are still near to their highest level, with some 77 million being added every year, or over 200,000 people every day. This is equivalent of a San Francisco every week and almost a Germany every year.

These people all need food, housing, jobs and health care. And once basic needs are met, the appetite for other consumer goods and services seems to be limited only by the ability to pay for them. Human impacts on resources and on the environment vary, therefore, not only with changes in population growth and distribution but also with changes in levels of consumption and the technologies involved.

For example, since 1950 the richest fifth of humanity has doubled its consumption of energy, meat, timber, steel and copper per person and quadrupled its car ownership, while the poorest fifth of humanity has increased its general consumption hardly at all.

Making problems worse

For this reason, booming population is only one among many causes of social and environmental problems. But such growth can make these problems much more difficult to solve.

Adolescent girls, India. Credit:Kim Naylor/Christian Aid
Adolescent girls, India. Credit:Kim Naylor/Christian Aid

Among the many prescriptions for dealing with such problems, perhaps none has such a catalytic effect as the education of girls. This helps lower child and maternal mortality rates; it increases the demand for family planning and reduces average family size (or what the demographers refer to as 'fertility'), it increases the educational attainment by daughters and of their children; it raises productivity; and it improves environmental management.

It is also one key element of the Action Plan agreed at the UN Conference on Population and Development agreed in Cairo in 1994, and further strengthened at follow-up conference in New York in 1999 (for further detail see International Action - Cairo and Beyond).

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