Where Population Poses the Greatest Challenges

06/16/2015 09:39 am ET | Updated Jun 15, 2016
TONY KARUMBA via Getty Images

As highlighted in a new report on population issued this week by the Population Institute, demography may not be destiny, but population matters. Rapid population growth poses significant challenges to developing nations already struggling with hunger, poverty, water scarcity, environmental degradation, and political instability. The report, which ranks the 20 most "demographically vulnerable" countries, calls rapid population growth a "challenge multiplier."

For more than a century the world has been undergoing a demographic transition from high mortality and high fertility to low mortality and low fertility. In many parts of the world that transition is well underway. In Europe and North America and in much of Latin America and East Asia, mortality rates have fallen dramatically and fertility rates have fallen to, or below, the "replacement rate" needed to stabilize population. As a result population is starting to decline in many countries, including Germany and Japan.

On the other side of what the Population Reference Bureau describes as the "demographic divide," mortality and fertility rates remain relatively high, but mortality rates have fallen faster than fertility rates. As a consequence, population is rising and, in some cases, rapidly. At current rates of growth, nearly 40 countries could double their populations during the next 35 years. Three countries, even with declining fertility, are on pace to triple their populations by 2050.

Challenges exist on both sides, but the difficulties confronting countries with "aging" or shrinking populations are of a radically different character than those found on the other side of the demographic divide. Countries with a stable or shrinking population face notable problems, including potential labor shortages and a shrinking tax base, but the challenges facing countries such as Burundi, Iraq, Niger, Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen are an order of magnitude higher.

Having gone through the demographic transition and reaped their demographic dividend, aging countries are generally more advanced, their capital infrastructure more developed, and their labor force better educated. Their populations, for the most part, are not afflicted with widespread hunger and severe poverty, and to the extent their governments are worried about water scarcity, deforestation, pollution or other environmental challenges, declining fertility is a boon, not a burden. A declining census, in fact, offers some significant advantages, including smaller capital outlays for schools, roads and other infrastructure. Tight labor markets make it easier for older workers, the long-term unemployed, and those with disabilities to enter or re-enter the labor force. A shrinking population may decrease the absolute size of the country's economy, but a stagnant GDP does not mean that per capita GDP must also fall. While "aging" countries have reasons to be concerned about the financing of Social Security and health care for the elderly, public sector shortfalls can be compensated for by increasing the rate of saving, public and private.

On the high fertility side of the demographic divide the challenges are far greater and the solutions more elusive. While significant progress has been made in reducing global hunger, most of the progress has occurred in countries with relatively low fertility. Where fertility rates remain high, the battle against hunger has yet to be won. In some areas of sub-Saharan Africa, the number of malnourished children is actually on the rise. And so is population. The population of Burundi, which by some measures is the hungriest country on the planet, is projected to increase by 154 percent by 2050. The population of South Sudan, which also ranks very high on the hunger scale, could rise by 236 percent.

Poverty is a pervasive concern in high fertility countries. The world has made commendable progress in reducing severe poverty, particularly in the emerging economies, but progress has been exceedingly slow in countries where population growth rates remain high. The population of Niger, which ranks first in the world for poverty, is projected to increase by 274 percent during the next 35 years. The population of Mali, ranked fourth, is expected to increase by 187 percent. Unless fertility falls faster than currently projected in these countries severe poverty will likely persist for decades to come.

In many countries, water tables are falling and lakes are shrinking. The UN warns that the world could be facing a "40 percent global water deficit" by 2030. Again, high fertility countries will be among the worst affected. The population of Yemen, one of the most water-stressed nations in the world, is projected to increase by 49 percent by 2050. The people of Pakistan and Afghanistan already are consuming more than 80 percent of their annual renewable water supply, yet the population of both countries is likely to grow another 80 percent by 2050. Water conservation efforts may help, but no one really knows how these countries will manage their water deficits.

Population density in many developing countries is putting unsustainable pressure on the renewable resource base. The population of Haiti, which has already lost 98 percent of its forest cover, is projected to increase by more than half by 2050. The Global Footprint Network estimates Iraq, which is projected to increase its population by more than 125 percent by 2050, is overusing its renewable resource base by more than 500 percent. Uganda, which is currently consuming renewable resources at twice the natural replenishment rate, is projected to increase its population by 168 percent during the next 35 years.

Nations with fast growing populations often struggle to maintain political stability. Unable to keep up with the demands of a growing population, governments can easily lose legitimacy. If there are not enough jobs available for young people, street protests can break out, as they have in many Middle Eastern countries. The resulting political instability can lead to strife and even civil war, as it has in Libya and Syria. With the notable exception of North Korea, virtually every country commonly labeled as a "fragile" or "failing" state is experiencing rapid population growth. Somalia's population is projected to increase by 151 percent during the next 35 years. The population of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) could rise by 172 percent.

Fortunately for these countries, population trends can be altered. There are an estimated 225 million women in the developing world who want to avoid a pregnancy, but are not using a modern method of contraception. Millions more need access to more reliable or longer acting methods of birth control. The UN estimates that meeting these contraceptive needs would cost about $5 billion more annually, an exceedingly small price to pay for the multitude of benefits that would be derived. But for many women in the developing world the biggest barrier is not a shortage of contraceptives. Other factors play a role, such as male opposition, religious prohibition or misinformation about the side effects of various contraceptives methods. Unless those cultural and informational barriers are also addressed, many girls and women in developing countries will never be able to determine, for themselves, the number and spacing of their births.

While family planning can reduce demographic vulnerability, developing countries also require other forms of assistance, including investments in sustainable agriculture, water conversation, habitat preservation and reforestation. Without such added investments, many countries could easily lose ground in the race against hunger and severe poverty.

The UN's post-2015 development agenda must recognize the enormity of the challenges facing many of the world's poorest countries, and donor nations must respond with a greater sense of urgency and compassion for countries still struggling to complete their demographic transition.

Robert Walker is the president of the Population Institute. He is the author of a new report, "Demographic Vulnerability: Where population growth poses the greatest challenge." The report identifies and ranks the 20 countries facing the greatest demographic challenges with respect to hunger, poverty, water, environment, and political instability.