The world’s population, long expected to stabilize just above nine billion in the middle of the century, will instead keep growing and may hit 10.1 billion by the year 2100, the United Nations (UN) projected in a report released on Tuesday.
Growth in Africa remains so high that the population there could more than triple in this century, rising from today’s one billion to 3.6 billion, the report said—a sobering forecast for a continent already struggling to provide adequate food and water.
Asia will remain the most populous major area, the report said. Asia’s population is expected to peak around the middle of the century and to start a slow decline thereafter.
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The new report comes just ahead of a demographic milestone, with the world population expected to pass seven billion in late October, only a dozen years after it topped six billion. Demographers called the new projections a reminder that a problem that helped define global politics in the 20th century, the population explosion, is far from solved in the 21st.
“Every billion more people makes life more difficult for everybody—it’s as simple as that,” said John Bongaarts, a demographer at the Population Council, a research group in New York. “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.”
The projections were made by the UN population division, which has a track record of fairly accurate forecasts. In the new report, the division raised its forecast for 2050, estimating the world would likely have 9.3 billion people then, an increase of 156 million over the previous estimate for that year, published in 2008. Among the factors behind the upward revisions is that fertility is not declining as rapidly as expected in some poor countries and has shown a slight increase in some wealthier countries, including the US, Denmark and the UK.
The US is growing faster than many rich countries, largely because of high immigration and higher fertility among Hispanic immigrants. The new report projects that the US population will rise from today’s 311 million to 478 million by 2100.
The director of the UN population division, Hania Zlotnik, said the world’s fastest growing countries, and the wealthy Western nations that help to finance their development, face a choice about whether to renew their emphasis on programmes that encourage family planning.
Though they were a major focus of development policy in the 1970s and the 1980s, such programmes have stagnated in many countries, caught up in ideological battles over abortion, sex education and the role of women in society.
Zlotnik said in an interview that the revised numbers were based on new forecasting methods and the latest demographic trends. But she cautioned that any forecast looking ahead 90 years comes with many caveats.
That is particularly so for some fast-growing countries whose populations are projected to skyrocket over the next century. For instance, Yemen, a country whose population has quintupled since 1950, to 25 million, would see its numbers quadruple again, to 100 million, by the century’s end, if the projections prove accurate. Yemen already depends on food imports and faces critical water shortages.
In Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa, the report projects that population will rise from today’s 162 million to 730 million by 2100. Malawi, a country of 15 million today, could grow to 129 million, the report projected.
The implicit, and possibly questionable, assumption behind these numbers is that food and water will be available for the billions yet unborn, and that potential catastrophes, including climate change, wars or epidemics, will not serve as a brake on population growth.
“It is quite possible for several of these countries that are smallish and have fewer resources, these numbers are just not sustainable,” Zlotnik said.
The report highlighted a converse problem in some developed countries: populations that are stagnant or even falling. Fertility has fallen below replacement level in many of the world’s richer countries, and unless they open their borders to extensive immigration, some face a future with too few young workers to pay the carrying costs for retirees.
The new report suggests that China, which has for decades enforced restrictive population policies, could soon enter the ranks of countries with declining populations.
It projects the Chinese population will peak at 1.4 billion in the next couple of decades, then begin falling, to 941 million by 2100. India will see its population peak at 1.7 billion by 2060.
©2011/THE NEW YORK TIMES
PTI contributed to this story.