The Washington Diplomat / October 2011
By Larry Luxner
Few Americans have any idea that Bangladesh — roughly the size of Florida — already has more human beings crammed into its watery 55,600 square miles than all of Russia, the largest nation on Earth.
As if that’s not crowded enough, by 2050, Bangladesh will grow from today’s 145 million to 226 million citizens, making it the seventh most populated country in the world, even as its land area shrinks due to climate change-induced rising seas.
Bone-dry Yemen, which is rapidly running out of water, saw its youth population (ages 15 to 24) multiply by a frightening 96 percent between 1995 and 2010. In French-speaking Niger, one of the world’s poorest nations, nearly 49 percent of people are younger than 16, while nearly a quarter of the citizens of wealthy Japan are 65 or older.
Meanwhile, in the vast Democratic Republic of Congo — Africa’s second-largest country by size — an astonishing 80 percent of its 67.8 million people live on less than $2 a day. In fact, half of the world’s population lives on that meager sum. In addition, one out of every four people on earth is Muslim. And 25.9 percent of inhabitants of tiny Swaziland are HIV-positive, while Zimbabwe has cut its HIV/AIDS rate from 23.7 percent to 14.3 percent over the last decade.
These are just a few of the fascinating tidbits of information found in the Population Reference Bureau’s “2011 World Population Data Sheet,” timed for release as the planet’s population reaches the 7 billion mark this month.
That in itself would be a momentous occasion — except for the fact that we just reached the 6 billion mark only 12 years ago, in 1999.
“Even though the annual population growth rate has declined to 1.2 percent per year, world population grows by about 83 million annually,” said Wendy Baldwin, president of the Washington-based Population Reference Bureau. “If the late 1960s population growth rate of 2.1 percent — the highest in history — had held steady, world population would have grown by 117 million annually, and today’s population would have been 8.6 billion.”
Added Carl Haub, the organization’s senior demographer and co-author of this year’s data sheet: “The world added the sixth billion and the seventh billion in a record 12 years for each. The eighth billion may also take about 12 years, but only if birth rates in all developing countries follow projections that assume a smooth decline to two children or fewer.”
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking July 11 on World Population Day, noted the coming milestone with a mix of optimism and foreboding.
“In October, the world’s population is expected to exceed 7 billion. While many people are living longer and healthier lives, this simple fact underscores the critical importance of addressing poverty, inequality, lack of education and poor health care that still impact billions of people,” she said.
“With half of the world’s population under the age of 25, we must also harness the positive force of the world’s youth to meet the needs of 7 billion people. When young people claim their right to education and health — including sexual and reproductive health — they increase their opportunities to become a powerful force for economic development and positive change.”
Population and demographic changes will indeed redefine life for most people on the planet, but in vastly different ways. Despite the youth bulge in certain areas of the world, other parts will be rapidly aging and not producing enough children to support the elderly.
And although much is made of dwindling fertility rates in the developed world, growth in the United States is expected to remain relatively stable (although a rise in minorities will significantly alter the country’s ethnic makeup) and birth rates in some European nations have been gradually ticking upward. Looking ahead, other nations will be going gray that you might not expect: 35 years from now, for example, both Mexico and Iran will have a larger percentage of their population over the age of 60 than France does today.
Russia’s population, meanwhile, is expected to continue plummeting, a result of declining birth rates and low life expectancy. On the flip side, Africa’s population could possibly swell to three times its current size over the next 90 years.
Although the shifting demographics spell different outcomes for different nations what’s certain is that the planet’s resources are finite — and more people will be competing for them (all while climate change is expected to exacerbate these resources).
So feeding people in nations experiencing explosive population growth could turn a daily struggle into an epic one.
One critical fact is undeniable: By 2050, China will no longer be the world’s most populous nation. That title will go to India, which the Population Reference Bureau (PRB) projects will have 1.69 billion people by then. Thanks to strict Communist Party enforcement of its one-child policy over the years, China is actually expected to see a net population decline, settling at 1.31 billion by 2050. What’s even more surprising is that oil-rich but corruption-plagued Nigeria — already the most populated country in Africa — will pull ahead of the United States to become the world’s third largest country, with 433 million citizens.
Pakistan, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Brazil, Ethiopia and the Philippines will round out the top 10 list, bumping Russia and Japan off the index for the first time. At the other extreme are the world’s smallest countries — Liechtenstein, Monaco, Andorra, San Marino, Nauru, Palau, Tuvalu and the Vatican — which have a combined population of 250,000 (less than that of Virginia’s Loudoun County, the fifth fastest-growing county in the United States between 2000 and 2010). Yet unlike Loudoun County, none of these European or Pacific microstates will add a single person in the next 40 years, making it highly likely they’ll remain microstates forever.
Akramul Qader, Bangladesh’s ambassador in Washington, readily admits his predominantly Muslim country has way too many people, and that his government is doing everything it can to bring growth under control.
“There was a time when our growth was 3.4 percent a year. We have brought it down to 1.6 percent, but it’s still too high. This has been a long, drawn-out process,” he told The Diplomat in a recent interview.
“Even during the 1960s, when our country was known as East Pakistan, we had a program to try to bring down the population growth rate. Since then, we’ve instituted family planning programs, even using religious people to explain to our citizens what Islam says about controlling family size. We thought this was necessary, because most of the illiterate people will believe whatever their imams say. It was one of the most powerful instruments we had to control population growth, even today.”
In fact, most experts say that the best way to curb rampant growth is focusing on women — improving their rights and access to family planning programs, which have stagnated in some nations due to religious and political backlash. More than 215 million women in developing countries want to avoid or space out pregnancies but are not using modern methods of contraception, according to the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA), which also notes that 1,000 women around the world die every day due to complications from pregnancy and childbirth.
On that front, despite its extreme poverty, Bangladesh — often called the “ground zero” of climate change catastrophe scenarios — is doing far better than neighboring India in some very specific areas, namely infant mortality and gender parity, according to Qader.
In addition, the ambassador said, health clinics have been set up in every single village of Bangladesh. “From there, people are fanning out to every house to explain to them about how to control family size. Hopefully, our efforts will have the desired result.”
In Africa — home to the world’s 10 poorest countries — population will grow to 2.3 billion by 2050, more than double the current population of 1.05 billion for a continent that can barely feed itself today.
Yet the Washington ambassadors of two of Africa’s fastest-growing countries say they could use the added people.
Portuguese-speaking Mozambique, with an annual per-capita GDP of only $880, will more than double its numbers from 23.1 million inhabitants today to 59.3 million by 2050, according to the PRB.
“It’s true that our population is growing, but it’s not a population explosion,” said the East African nation’s ambassador here, Amelia Matos Sumbana. “Maybe there are countries where this is a major concern because they’re overpopulated, but Mozambique is not overpopulated,” she pointed out. “We have 11 provinces, and some of them are almost empty. Mozambique is a new country and we need people to develop these provinces.”
A similar attitude was expressed by Ambassador Mwanaidi Sinare Maajar of Tanzania, which the PRB says will see its current population of 46.2 million triple to an unthinkable 138.3 million by 2050.
Maajar disputes that number, noting that Tanzania’s most recent census puts the country’s current population at only 41 million.
“We are struggling with social services delivery and trying to improve the lives of our people, but even though growth hasn’t been as low as the government would have wanted it to be, I’m not overly worried,” she told us. “We have adequate land. If we were to utilize all the lands we have, we could accommodate population growth. We have a lot of land that has yet to be cultivated, and we could feed ourselves and our neighbors without any problems. But the land has to be put to use to produce food.”
The world does possess the means to feed everyone — but unequal distribution has left 1 billion people hungry even today. So what will happen if the global population hits 10.1 billion by the year 2100, as the United Nations predicted in a report released in May? In that same report, the U.N.’s population division raised its forecast for 2050, estimating that the world would most likely have 9.3 billion people by then — an increase of 156 million over the previous estimate for that year, published in 2008.
“Every billion more people makes life more difficult for everybody. It’s as simple as that,” John Bongaarts, a demographer at the Population Council, told the New York Times. “Is it the end of the world? No. Can we feed 10 billion people? Probably. But we obviously would be better off with a smaller population.”
Some nations though won’t be better off with a shrinking citizenry. Indeed, while world population could reach 9.3 billion by 2050, several countries are losing people faster than ever before. Over the next 40 years, says the PRB, Japan will see its numbers contract from 127 million to around 95 million — a stunning drop of 25.3 percent.
The remaining population will also be even grayer. In 2005, Japan had a median age of 43.5 — giving it the world’s oldest population. That will climb to 55.5 by 2050. South Korea will be a close second at 54.9 years; in at least 10 more countries, 40 percent of citizens will be 60 or older. Other countries likely to see dramatic reductions in their populations include Georgia (22.6 percent), Bulgaria (21.9 percent), Poland (16.6 percent) and Russia (10.7 percent).
In particular, experts say that Russia, whose population has been steadily declining since the early 1990s, will struggle to compete on the world stage if current trends hold. All three neighboring Baltic countries — Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia — are also suffering from falling populations, while Lithuania has a net migration rate of 24 per 1,000, the world’s highest.
Yet when it comes to shrinking populations, no place beats Ukraine. According to the PRB, the country’s birth rate is falling by 0.8 percent annually, the fastest such decline in the world. This means that if current trends continue, Ukraine — which had 52 million inhabitants in 1991— is likely to see its current population of 45.7 million fall to only 36.5 million by mid-century.
If Ukraine’s ambassador in Washington, Olexander Motsyk, is worried, he certainly doesn’t show it.
“That tendency is temporary. We are now very close to stopping the decrease in population,” he told us several months ago as the country celebrated its 20th anniversary as a sovereign nation. “At the beginning of our independence, many people left Ukraine looking for employment, but now they’re coming back because the situation is improving. I’m sure that by 2050, we will definitely have more than 52 million people.”
One of the most important factors in determining population growth is a country’s total fertility rate. But these rates vary wildly — from a low of 0.9 children per woman in Taiwan to a high of 7.0 in Niger, with most countries falling in the 2.0 to 3.0 range. And the fact is that fertility isn’t declining as rapidly as was expected in some poor countries, and has actually increased in many wealthier countries, including the United States, Denmark and Great Britain.
Another factor is the death rate. And in Africa, the AIDS epidemic “hasn’t been the demographic disaster that was once predicted,” says the New York Times.
“Prevalence estimates and projections for HIV made for Africa in the 1990s turned out to be too high, and in many populations, treatment with new drug regimens has cut the death rate from the disease,” Justin Gillis and Celia W. Dugger reported. “But the survival of millions of people with AIDS who would have died without treatment, and falling rates of infant and child mortality — both heartening trends — also mean that fertility rates for women need to fall faster to curb population growth.”
Case in point: Uganda, which had only 5 million inhabitants at the time of its independence in 1962. Today, this Oregon-size country has 34.5 million people. Left unchecked, says the PRB, Uganda will have 105.6 million mouths to feed by 2050 — a consequence of extremely high fertility rates and a sharp drop in AIDS deaths in recent years.
By contrast, throughout the Western Hemisphere, growth has fallen dramatically, to the point that not one single country in South America will come even close to doubling in population between now and 2050. And the region’s largest countries are barely growing at all: Argentina (1.1 percent annually), Brazil (0.9 percent), Mexico (1.4 percent) and Colombia (1.2 percent).
As growth plateaus in many places, there simply won’t be enough babies being born to replace the previous generation. According to the United Nations, by 2045 elderly people will outnumber children for the first time in human history. This “gray tsunami” will inundate already-strained social systems.
Phillip Longman, writing in this month’s issue of Foreign Policy, says a “gray tsunami will be sweeping the planet” — as more than half the world’s population growth over the next 40 years comes from increases in the number of people over 60. (By contrast, only 6 percent of growth will come from people under 30).
“Because of the phenomenon of hyper-aging in the developing world, another great variable is already changing as well: migration. In Mexico, for example, the population of children age 4 and under was 434,000 less in 2010 than it was in 1996,” wrote Longman, author of “The Empty Cradle: How Falling Birthrates Threaten World Prosperity And What to Do About It” and a fellow at the New America Foundation.
“The result? The demographic momentum that fueled huge flows of Mexican migration to the United States has waned, and will wane much more in the future. Already, the net flow of illegal Mexican immigration northward has slowed to a trickle.
With fewer children to support and not yet burdened by a huge surge of elders, the Mexican economy is doing much better than in the past, giving people less reason to leave. By 2025, young people on both sides of the border may struggle to understand why their parents’ generation built this huge fence.”
Meanwhile, in the Caribbean — another major source of illegal immigration to the United States — the Dominican Republic’s population will hit the 11-million mark sometime in 2019. This means that for the first time in recorded history, Cuba, the Caribbean’s largest nation in size, will no longer be its largest in population.
And only three years later, in 2022, if current demographic trends stay on track, impoverished Haiti will also overtake Cuba in population and may eventually surge past the DR — with which it shares the island of Hispaniola — to become the Caribbean’s most inhabited country.
“It’s historically significant, because this will be the first time Cuba is surpassed in population, not by one but by two [Caribbean] countries,” said Thomas Boswell, a professor of geography and regional studies at the University of Miami. “That doesn’t surprise me, because they both have much higher fertility rates than Cuba. All Marxist states — with the exception of Albania and maybe North Korea — have tended to have very low fertility rates.”
In fact, Cuba’s shrinking population has enormous implications for the communist-ruled island, which last year saw more than 38,000 of its citizens leave the island, the largest exodus of emigrants since 1994.
Juan Carlos Alfonso Fraga, director for population and development studies at the country’s Oficina Nacional de Estadísticas, said that by 2030, Cubans age 60 years or more will account for 31 percent of the island’s population, making it one of the world’s grayest countries.
“Since 1978, the overall fertility rate, which represents the average number of children per woman, is less than needed to allow for population replacement and therein lies the main cause of aging in Cuban society — without a doubt one of the most significant challenges the nation must face,” he told the official newspaper Granma.
It was this trend, in fact, that led the Castro government in 2009 to boost Cuba’s retirement age to 65 for men and 60 for women. If that hadn’t happened, he said, by 2015 more people would be leaving the workforce than entering it.
Just as Cuba may never reach the 12-million mark, Puerto Rico’s population is unlikely to ever hit 4 million. The crowded U.S. commonwealth — already one of the most densely populated jurisdictions in the world — reached a population of 3.9 million in 2008 and has since been losing residents to the U.S. mainland. The island’s population now stands at around 3.7 million and is expected to drop another 7.1 percent by 2050.
Meanwhile, the picture for America’s mainland itself remains mixed. The U.S. Census Bureau’s International Data Base released growth projections for more than 200 countries earlier this year and found that the United States will remain fairly level over the next few decades, reaching a population of 423 million (up from 308 million in 2010) by 2050, which corresponds roughly to PRB’s recent findings as well.
Those findings also reveal that growth patterns will vary greatly across different pockets of the country. PRB reports that over the last 10 years, people have flocked toward the suburbs of booming metropolitan areas such as Las Vegas, Atlanta, Houston and Washington, D.C., while America’s rural areas continue to shed people. Minorities will also gain significant ground, and the face of the United States will look far different in 2050 than what it was in 1950, leading to unknown political and social reverberations.
“While the U.S. appears relatively stable — it’s the only country in the top 10 whose ranking is not expected to change in the next 40 years — previous reports have highlighted dramatic demographic shifts within the country’s borders,” wrote Claire Suddath in Time magazine. “Last week, the Census Bureau announced that more than half of children under age 2 in the U.S. are ethnic minorities. Add to that the non-Hispanic white population’s increasing age … and the U.S. in 2050 will look a lot different than the one we know today.”
So, for that matter, will the entire planet.