Fifteen years ago, at the turn of the century, some demographers were proclaiming an end to world population growth was in sight. Some ominously warned of a global "birth dearth." No longer. The latest UN population projections released today by the UN's World Population Division indicate that world population is growing faster than previously projected. World population, currently 7.3 billion, is now projected to reach 9.7 billion by 2050 and 11.3 billion by 2100. As recently as six years ago, the UN was projecting that world population would reach 9.1 billion by 2050, and just two years ago the UN was projecting that world population would reach 10.9 million by the end of the century.
While fertility rates continue to decline in most countries, gender inequalities in developing countries--and child marriage practices in particular--are denying many women the ability to space or limit their pregnancies. As a consequence, fertility rates in these countries are not falling as fast as previously anticipated, and the population growth rate remains high. The UN reported today that by 2022 India will likely surpass China as the world's most populous country and by 2050 Nigeria's population will surpass that of the U.S.
While projected population growth has global implications, including climate change mitigation, the greatest challenges will arise in the poorest of the developing nations. Population growth is a challenge multiplier for countries already struggling to eradicate poverty and alleviate hunger. Most developing countries will double their population by 2050, but some countries, most notably South Sudan, Niger, and Zambia, could triple their population by mid-century. Today's UN report indicates that 33 developing nations are on course to triple their population by 2100. Rapid population growth in these countries will make it more difficult to address poverty, hunger, sanitation, water scarcity, environmental degradation, conflict, and other development challenges.
While significant gains have been made in reducing the number of people living in poverty over the past decade, most of that improvement has occurred in countries with lower fertility rates. In countries where fertility rates remain high, progress has been much slower. The UN's Millennium Development Goals have helped spur a global fight against hunger, but the number of undernourished children in sub-Saharan Africa actually rose from 27 million in 1990 to 32 million in 2012.
Last month, the Population Institute issued a special report ("Demographic Vulnerability: Where population growth poses the greatest challenges") that identified and ranked the 20 countries facing the greatest demographic challenges with respect to hunger, poverty, water, environment and political instability. The report, which took into consideration corruption, resource scarcity, climate change and other factors affecting a country's ability to accommodate projected population growth, ranked South Sudan as the most demographically vulnerable country in the world. Other countries on the top ten list included Somalia, Niger, Burundi, Eritrea, Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo, Afghanistan, Yemen and Sudan.
No one should underestimate the development challenges facing these countries. The population of Niger, which ranks #1 in the world for poverty, is projected by the Population Reference Bureau to rise from 18.2 million to 68 million in just 35 years. The population of Burundi, which ranks #1 on the Global Hunger Index, is projected to increase from 10.5 million in 2014 to 26.7 million by 2050.
As part of the Millennium Development Goals, the UN set 2015 as the target date for ensuring universal access to family planning and reproductive health services, but the target has not been met. An estimated 225 million women in the developing world want to avoid a pregnancy, but are not using a modern method of contraception. These women need improved access to contraceptives and the ability to decide for themselves the spacing and timing of their pregnancies. Cultural barriers, particularly child marriages practices, which deny women their reproductive freedom must be dismantled. Otherwise, the path out of poverty for these women and their families will remain an uphill struggle.
Fortunately, demographic projections are not written in stone. The UN's population report indicates that even relatively small reductions in fertility rates can significantly shrink the population projections for 2050 and 2100. Progress in reducing fertility will also go a long way towards determining whether efforts to eradicate global poverty and hunger are ultimately successful. If such progress is to be realized, the international community, including the U.S., will have to increase its support for family planning, the education of girls, and the empowerment of women.