Population Grows in Wrong Places

Article excerpt

The good news is that world population growth rates are slowing down.

The bad news is that it is happening too slowly - and too late - to prevent a massive crisis in collapsing living standards, shortage of food and very dangerous pressures on global ecosystems, experts warn.

Also, population growth remains very high in many of the world's poorest countries, which are least able to deal with it, the experts said.

"Rapid population growth in the poorest countries of the world remains the most pressing global demographic problem," Werner Fornos, president of the Population Institution, told a Washington conference Dec. 30.

The United Nations published new estimates in 1997 that showed total world population now growing at a slower rate than many studies had predicted.

The decline in growth is faster than anticipated because of acceptance of family planning, delays of marriage and an increase in death rates, especially in parasitic and infectious diseases.

"That was the good news. But it only happened after the human race had already moved beyond the limits of sustainable growth in [global] ecosystems," said Gary Gardner of the Worldwatch Institute.

"The world population explosion is still very much alive and kicking," Mr. Gardner said.

Also, the slowdown in global population growth is only a relatively incremental one, Mr. Fornos said. It is happening after world population had already soared to unsustainable levels. Even at slower rates, the number of people in the world will continue to grow, he said.

The world's population is estimated to have reached 1 billion for the first time by 1830. But it then took only 120 years to double to 2 billion by 1930. It took only 30 years to reach 3 billion by 1960.

In the past half-century, it has grown by more than 250 percent again and is now about 5.8 billion, experts say.

"The slower rises in population . . . can be compared to a tidal wave surging toward one of our coastal cities," Mr. Fornos said. "Whether the tidal wave is 80 feet or 100 feet high, the impact will be similar."

Even though human population growth slowed in 1997, virtually all of the population expansion that did occur took place in the poorest and most impoverished nations, locking them in further in an apparently endless cycle of suffering, destitution and despair, experts said.

"Nearly 98 percent of the annual increase that we're reporting for 1997 occurred in countries of the developing regions of the world," Mr. Fornos said.

These were the very countries "least able to support the growing millions and to withstand the consequences of runaway growth, environmental degradation, economic stagnation, hunger and malnutrition, urban deterioration, and high maternal and child mortality," he said.

Population analysts say 80 percent of the world's population now resides in that developing world, often called the Third World.

That region includes "74 countries . . . now on a course to double their populations within less than 30 years," Mr. Fornos said.

Therefore, "although many of the countries of Latin America and Asia have recorded significant fertility declines, the annual number of births worldwide will be at least 132 million increase [per year] for many more years to come," he said.

That, experts say, is virtually the equivalent of adding the population of Britain and France combined to the world every year.

The areas of continuing most rapid population growth are the Middle East, North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa, said Worldwatch's Mr. Gardner.

The populations of North Africa and the Middle East have already far outstripped the capacity of their regions to grow enough food to feed them, Mr. Gardner said.

"North Africa and the Middle East are now the greatest grain importing regions of the world," he said. …