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1999 In Review: Growing Population Poses Biggest Problem

  • Ben Partridge

What are the prospects for the 21st century? Futurologists at the Paris-based Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) say the biggest problem will be an explosion of the world's population. In this second feature in a three-part series, RFE/RL correspondent Ben Partridge looks at upcoming demographic changes.

London, 30 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- It took 10,000 years for the world's population to reach 1,000 million around the year 1800, another 100 years to double to 2,000 million, and less than a century to triple to 6,000 million. Now the global population is set to almost double again.

Michel Andrieu of the International Futures Program at the OECD predicts that demographic changes in the 21st century will "be greater in magnitude than at any other period in the history of mankind."

His study says demography will be the dominant force that shapes world development and dictates the international agenda.

The UN's population projections estimate that the world population will nearly double from the current roughly 6,000 million to 10,400 million by the end of the 21st century. It is expected to peak at some 10,800 million by 2150. These figures assume that global fertility rates will stabilize at just above two children per woman in the 21st century.

Why the huge increase? The developing countries are poised to experience a "demographic transition" from their present high birth and high mortality rates to low birth and low mortality rates. Contrary to what one might think, that will lead in the first instance to an explosive surge in their populations.

Developed countries by contrast will experience almost no population growth. The result will be a major geographical shift in the distribution of the world population. The proportion living in the developed world will decrease from 20 percent today to 10 percent by 2100. In addition, declining fertility and mortality rates will eventually lead to "dramatic population aging in all countries."

If the UN's projections are right, the global population aged 60 and above will increase from 10 percent now to 20 percent in 2150.

Under the projections, the fastest increase in the world's population will take place in the first half of the 21st century. So, the next 50 years will be a period of maximum strain on resources and the environment. The increase in the number of old people, particularly the frail and elderly, will increase demands on the provision of health and social services.

Aging will have political implications as it will influence the structure of the electorate in favor of old voters who stand to win a greater share of public expenditure at the expense of schools and child care. Tensions between the generations may arise as a result.

The OECD study also says population aging, increasing life expectancy and labor-force trends will "reduce the amount of time that society devotes to employment."

What does this mean? Men in developed countries will work fewer years and retire younger. By one estimate, men will spend 33 years in jobs by 2030, compared with 50 years in 1950. This could lead to falling per capita incomes.

The challenge posed by the population explosion in developing countries is daunting. The OECD expects that a new era of lower mortality rates will cause the population of Latin America to reach 810 million by 2050, up from 447 million in 1990. India's population will soar to 1,500 million by 2050, up from 850 million in 1990. China's population will reach 1,500 million, up from 1,140 million today. Policy-makers in developing countries will have to consider how to create hundreds of millions of jobs for the influx of young people into the labor market. But even in countries that successfully manage their demographic transitions, social upheaval seems inevitable. The OECD study says people in developing nations will migrate by the millions from the countryside to cities, leading to ethnic conflict, overcrowding, congestion, urban unrest and crime. One result will be the further growth of huge shanty towns that will deepen environmental problems.

The study says over the next 30 years, the world's urban population could double. The next few years will likely see the growth of very large cities, or so-called mega-cities. Some 36 cities around the world will have more than eight million inhabitants by 2015, and most will be in the developing countries.

UN projections suggest that Tokyo, Japan, will be the largest city in the world in 2015, with some 29 million inhabitants. The UN expects that it will be followed by Bombay, India, and Lagos, Nigeria, both with more than 25 million inhabitants. The most densely inhabited European cities will be Istanbul with 12 million, Paris with 10 million and Moscow with 9 million.

The study says policy-makers face a formidable challenge in trying to solve the problems posed by population increase. It says the task will be even more difficult if corruption in politics and tribalism in societies spread more widely, too.

In the final part in our three-part series on life in the 21st century, we'll look at projections regarding whether the world will have sufficient amounts of food, water and energy to meet the demands of a growing population.