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UN: Population Division Says Eastern Europe's Population To Fall By Half In Some Areas

  • Don Hill

The UN says many of the nations of Eastern Europe will lose from a third to half of their populations by the middle of the century. Low birth rates, relatively short life expectancies, and high emigration are the causes. The head of the UN population division tells RFE/RL that low birth rates and the global AIDS epidemic probably will slow increases in the Earth's population substantially.

Prague, 27 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Joseph Chamie, director of the UN Population Division, has some startling news for Bulgaria, Estonia, Georgia, Latvia, Russia, and Ukraine. At a time when the world's population is growing, these countries probably will lose a third to half of their population size by mid-century.

The UN Population Division, based at the United Nations in New York, is charged with tracking, measuring, and forecasting world population and population changes. At the beginning of this century, it estimated that the earth's population would be 9.3 billion by the year 2050. The agency has just issued its latest revisions to that forecast.

Chamie said the projected drop in Eastern Europe's population is because of low birth rates, lagging life expectancies, and growing outward migration from these countries. "There are only three ways you can affect population change: births, death, and migration. And you have all three operating here [in Eastern Europe]. You have fewer births. Birthrates in these countries are extremely low, some of the lowest in the world. Their death rates, their life expectancies, have not improved as in Western countries. They have stagnated and in some cases gotten worse. And, third, you have a great deal of out-migration in countries such as the Russian Federation and Ukraine and other countries to Western, more economically dynamic countries," he explained.

The Population Division's social scientists amass volumes of data on trends, public health, birth and death rates. But in the end, their findings also must rest on assumptions and subjective judgments of the kinds of decisions individual citizens will be making. How, for example, does a woman decide whether to have children and how many children to have?

The Population Division begins with the simple logic that to maintain a population, each woman of child-bearing age, say 15 to 49, must have an average of two children simply for replacement purposes -- one for herself and one for her mate. In countries, such as those in Eastern Europe where population contraction is forecast, the expected average is 1.2 or less.

Chamie said this appears to be a product of women finding it essential to supplement the family income by earning a wage instead of staying home with children. Prospective mothers seem also to be deterred by lack of adequate housing for a larger family and by the difficulty of feeding and clothing additional dependents.

"The fertility being lower in many of the countries [is] due to the same factors that we're seeing throughout most of the developed world. Trying to balance especially women in the labor force and having children with worsening economic situations in many of the Eastern European countries, a shortage of adequate housing, a limit on the income that they would need to have to survive," Chamie said.

The Population Division estimates that there are 6.3 billion people in the world today and that the world population is growing at a rate of 1.2 percent a year. Six countries -- India, China, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nigeria, and the United States -- account for half of that growth, India alone for more than a fifth.

The UN agency says that if fertility were to remain constant in all countries at current levels, the population of the globe would more than double by 2050, reaching 12.8 billion.

Chamie said, however, that his experts are projecting a lower growth rate, and in fact are revising downward their earlier forecasts. "This revision indicates a world population by mid-century of 8.9 billion. This is roughly 400 million less than we projected two years ago. The reasons for this decline, or difference, of around 400 million are due to two reasons. First, increasing deaths due to AIDS and, second, we are projecting assuming fewer births in the future," he said.

About half of the 400 million downward adjustment results from expectations of accelerating deaths in an AIDS epidemic that is raging through sub-Saharan Africa and other developing countries. Deliberate decisions to postpone or avoid parenthood through family planning will be significant also.

Chamie said he believes that education and greater knowledge will slow the AIDS scourge a bit but that it will continue to have a tremendous impact on world population. "We assume in our future projections that family-planning programs and family-planning services will continue to be provided, and an increasing number of people will be using planning as they wish to. In addition, we assume that up to [the year] 2010, prevalence rates of HIV-AIDS [will] remain basically unchanged, but subsequent to that we see decreasing rates, which reflect changing behavior in terms of [the risk of] catching HIV virus."

The Population Division prophets do not, in their most recent projections, factor in the possibility of a major medical breakthrough to cure or immunize against AIDS. Chamie said that is in the works, however. "Our projections assume that there will be a behavioral change. We do not see in these projections necessarily a vaccine coming out in the near future. Therefore, if that does happen, of course, we would have to change our projections. And we are going to be doing a scenario assuming that there is a vaccine developed, let's say, if three to five years -- what would be the impact of this? -- but we haven't completed that scenario."

The UN Population Division forecasts that by 2050, the populations of the more-developed nations will have been declining for 20 years. It says the populations of the less-developed nations will still be on the rise.