Our Demographically Divided World:

Saturday, April 10, 1999
6:00 PM EDT

Our Demographically Divided World:
Rising Mortality Joins Falling Fertility
To Slow Population Growth

For the first time since China's great famine claimed 30 million lives in 1959-61, rising death rates are slowing world population growth. When the United Nations released its biennial population update in late 1998, it reduced the projected world populat ion for 2050 from 9.4 billion to 8.9 billion. Of the 500 million drop, roughly two thirds is because of falling birth rates, but one third is the result of rising death rates.

"Tragically, the world is dividing into two parts: one where population growth is slowing as fertility falls, and one where population growth is slowing as mortality rises," said Lester R. Brown, co-author with Gary Gardner and Brian Halweil of Beyond Malthus: Nineteen Dimensions of the Population Challenge. "That rising death rates have already reduced the projected population for 2050 by 150 million represents a failure of our political institutio ns unmatched since the outbreak of World War II."

The world is now starting to reap the consequences of its past neglect of the population issue, according to the new book released by the Worldwatch Institute and funded by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. The two regions where death rates are alr eady rising, or are likely to do so, are sub-Saharan Africa and the Indian subcontinent, which together contain 1.9 billion people, or one third of humanity. "Without clearly defined strategies by governments in countries with rapid population growth to q uickly lower birth rates and a commitment by the international community to support them, one third of humanity could slide into a demographic dark hole," said Brown.

This rise in mortality does not come as a surprise to those who track world population trends and who know that a 3 percent annual growth rate will lead to a twenty-fold population increase in a century. Although population growth has slowed in most devel oping countries, it has not slowed enough in many to avoid serious problems.

After nearly half a century of continuous population growth, the demand in many countries for food, water, and forest products is simply outrunning the capacity of local life support systems. In addition, the ever growing number of young people who need h ealth care and education is exceeding the availability of these services. If birthrates do not come down soon enough, natural systems deteriorate and social services fall short, forcing death rates up.

But what would cause death rates to go up in individual countries? Would it be starvation? An outbreak of disease? War? Or social disintegration? At some point as population pressures build, governments are simply overwhelmed and are not able to respond t o new threats. Beyond Malthus identifies three specific threats that either are already pushing death rates up or that have the potential to do so-the HIV epidemic, aquifer depletion, and shrinking cropland area per person.

"Of these three threats, the HIV virus is the first to spiral out of control in developing countries," said Brown. "The HIV epidemic should be seen for what it is: an international emergency of epic proportions, one that could claim more lives in the earl y part of the next century than World War II did in this century." In sub-Saharan Africa, HIV infection rates are soaring, already infecting one fifth to one fourth of the adult population in Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Swaziland.

Barring a medical miracle, many African countries will lose one fifth or more of their adult population to AIDS within the next decade. To find a precedent for such a potentially devastating loss of life from an infectious disease, we have to go back to t he decimation of New World Indian communities by the introduction of smallpox in the sixteenth century or to the Bubonic plague that claimed roughly a third of Europe's population during the fourteenth century.

Ominously, the virus has also established a foothold in the Indian subcontinent. With 4 million of its adults now HIV positive, India is home to more infected individuals than any other nation. And with the infection rate among India's adults at roughly 1 percent-a critical threshold for potentially rapid spread-the HIV epidemic threatens to engulf the country if the government does not move quickly to check it.

Using life expectancy, the sentinel indicator of development, we can see that the HIV virus is reversing the gains of the last several decades. For example, in Botswana, life expectancy has fallen from 62 years in 1990 to 44 years in 1998. In Zimbabwe, it has fallen from 61 years in 1993 to 49 years in 2000 and could drop to 40 years in 2010. For infants born with the virus, life expectancy is less than two years.

A second consequence of continuing population growth addressed in Beyond Malthus is potentially life-threatening water shortages. If rapid population growth continues indefinitely, the demand for water eventually exceeds the sustainable yield of aquifers. The result is excessive water withdrawals and falling water tables. Since 40 percent of the world's food comes from irrigated land, water shortages can quickly translate into food shortages.

Dozens of developing countries face acute water shortages early in the next century, but none illustrate the threat better than India, whose population, which is expanding by 18 million per year, will reach 1 billion in a few months. New estimates for Ind ia indicate that water withdrawals are now double the rate of aquifer recharge. As a result, water tables are falling by 1 to 3 meters per year over much of the country. Overpumping today means water supply cutbacks tomorrow, a serious matter where half o f the grain harvest comes from irrigated land.

The International Water Management Institute estimates that aquifer depletion and the resulting cutbacks in irrigation water could drop India's grain harvest by one fourth. "In a country where 53 percent of all children are already malnourished and underw eight, a shrinking harvest could increase hunger-related deaths, adding to the 6 million worldwide who die each year from hunger and malnutrition," said Brown. In contrast to AIDS, which takes a heavy toll of young adults, hunger claims mostly infants and children.

The third threat that hangs over the future of countries where rapid population growth continues is shrinking cropland per person. Once cropland per person shrinks to a certain point, people can no longer feed themselves, becoming dependent on imported fo od. The risk is that countries either will not be able to afford the imported food or that food simply will not be available as world import needs exceed exportable surpluses.

Among the larger countries where shrinking cropland per person threatens future food security are Nigeria, Ethiopia, and Pakistan, all countries with weak family planning programs. For example, as Nigeria's population goes from 111 million today to a proj ected 244 million in 2050, its grainland per person will shrink from 0.15 hectares to 0.07 hectares. Pakistan's projected growth from 146 million today to 345 million by 2050 will shrink its grainland per person from 0.08 hectares at present to 0.03 hecta res, an area scarcely the size of a tennis court. Countries where grainland per person has shrunk to 0.03 hectares, such as Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, each import some 70 percent of their grain.

The threats from HIV, aquifer depletion, and shrinking cropland are not new or unexpected. We have known for at least 15 years that the HIV virus could decimate human populations if it was not controlled. In each of the last 18 years, the number of new HI V infections has risen. Of the 47 million infected thus far, 14 million have died. In the absence of a low-cost cure, most of the remaining 33 million will be dead by 2005.

"It is hard to believe, given the advanced medical knowledge of the late twentieth century, that a controllable disease is decimating human populations in so many countries," said Brown. "Similarly, it is hard to imagine that falling water tables, which m ay prove an even greater threat to future economic progress and political stability, could be so widely ignored. The arithmetic of emerging water shortages is not difficult." A growing population with a water supply that is essentially fixed by nature mea ns that the water supply per person will diminish over time, eventually dropping below the amount needed to satisfy basic needs, such as food production.

The same is true for cropland per person. "The mystery is not in the arithmetic. That is straightforward. The mystery is in our failure to respond to the threats associated with continuing population growth," said Brown.

The authors note that one of the keys to helping countries quickly slow population growth is expanded international assistance for reproductive health and family planning. At the U.N.'s Conference on Population and Development held in Cairo in 1994, it wa s estimated that the annual cost of providing quality reproductive health services to all those in need in developing countries would cost $17 billion in the year 2000. By 2015, this would climb to $22 billion.

Industrial countries agreed to provide one third of the funds with the developing countries providing the remaining two thirds. While developing countries have largely honored their commitments, the industrial countries, importantly the United States, hav e reneged on theirs. And almost unbelievably, in late 1998 the U.S. Congress withdrew all funding for the U.N. Population Fund, the principal source of international family planning assistance.

"The same family planning services-including reproductive health counseling and the distribution of condoms-that help to slow population growth also help to check the spread of the HIV virus," said Brown. "But unfortunately, Congress, mired in the quicksa nd of anti-abortion politics, is depriving developing countries of the assistance that they need."

Beyond family planning, the forgiveness of international debts by governments in the industrial world could enable poor countries to make the heavy investments in education, especially of young females, that accelerates the shift to smaller families. For example, in Kenya, 25 percent of government revenue is spent on debt servicing, while 7 percent is spent on education and 3 percent on health care.

As U.N. delegates prepare in June to evaluate the progress made since the Cairo conference, there is a desperate need for leadership in stabilizing world population as soon as possible. But, the authors note, despite the obvious social consequences of one third of the world heading into a demographic nightmare, none of those to whom the world looks for leadership-the Secretary General of the United Nations, the president of the World Bank, or the president of the United States-has even so much as devoted a single public address to the fast-deteriorating situation.