Environment

Too Many Humans: Overpopulation Is Bad for People and the Planet

In the developing world, where high fertility rates impede efforts to reduce poverty and prevent environmental degradation, reproductive choice can be a game changer.

Photo Credit: Arthimedes/Shutterstock.com

The ability to space or prevent a pregnancy can make all the difference in the world to girls and women. That does not require much explanation. Reproductive choice, however, is also a potential game changer for developing countries. That’s because rapid population growth is a challenge multiplier that can impede efforts to reduce poverty, alleviate hunger, boost educational attainment, manage water scarcity, improve basic services, and prevent environmental degradation. 

Thanks to the U.N. Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), a great deal of progress has been made in improving lives in the developing world over the past 15 years. Substantial gains have been made in alleviating poverty, reducing the incidence of hunger and malnutrition, and improving conditions for the poorest of the poor. By far, however, the biggest gains have been made in countries with relatively low fertility rates. In countries where fertility rates remain very high, progress has been slow and, in a few cases, nonexistent. 

Last month, the Population Institute released a first of its kind report titled, “Demographic Vulnerability: Where population growth poses the greatest challenges.” The report identifies and ranks the 20 developing nations facing the greatest demographic challenges with respect to hunger, poverty, water, environment and political instability. South Sudan topped our list of the most vulnerable. The others in the top ten include Somalia, Niger, Burundi, Eritrea, Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Sudan. In many of these countries, conflict is impeding the ability of their governments to meet the needs of a growing population. In others, widespread corruption or climate change will create obstacles to progress. In a few of them, water scarcity is already a major concern.

Even if fertility rates continue to decline, population in almost all of the countries profiled in our report will likely double in the next 35 years. Three of the countries on our list — South Sudan, Niger, and Zambia — will likely triple their population by midcentury. 

The best way to understand the scope of these demographic challenges is to look at some of the individual countries profiled in our report.

Niger, which we ranked third for demographic vulnerability, also ranks number one in the world for poverty. Because child hunger and malnutrition are chronic in many parts of the country, Niger is heavily dependent upon emergency food aid for its survival. The Population Reference Bureau, however, projects that Niger’s population will rise from 18.2 million today to 68 million over the next 35 years.

Burundi, which we ranked third for demographic vulnerability, was afflicted by a brutal civil war from 1993 to 2006 and experts are concerned that recent election disputes could trigger a full-scale resumption of hostilities. According to the 2014 Global Hunger Index, Burundi was the hungriest nation in the world. Its population, however, is projected to increase from 10.5 million in 2014 to 26.7 million by 2050.

Yemen, which ranked ninth in our survey, is one of the most water stressed countries in the world, and the civil war that is now engulfing the country is exacerbating the escalating water crisis. Experts say that Sanaa, the capital city, could run out of water within a decade, but Yemen’s population is expected to increase from 26.6 million to 38.3 million over the next 35 years. Yemen, one of the poorest, hungriest and conflict-afflicted countries in the world, faces a very uncertain future.

Reproductive freedom in these countries is not just a moral imperative; it’s a humanitarian imperative. Gender inequality and child marriage practices in many of these countries deny women the ability to decide for themselves how many children they will have and when. As a result, women are unable to plan their pregnancies and their families face an uphill struggle in their efforts to improve their lives.

Nearly a decade ago the United Nations set 2015 as the target year for achieving the MDG 5(b) goal of providing universal access to family planning and other reproductive health services. That goal, unfortunately, has not been met. In fact, the number of women in the developing world who want to avoid a pregnancy, but who are not using a modern method of contraception, remains essentially unchanged from a decade ago. The latest estimate is 225 million women. As a consequence, fertility rates in developing countries remain high and global population projections are steadily increasing.

World population today is 7.3 billion, but the U.N. last week projected that population will reach 9.7 billion by 2050. That’s about 600 million higher than the projection that was made just six years ago.  And virtually all of that added population growth is occurring in the poorest of the developing nations.

Unless more is done by the U.S. and other donor countries to educate girls, empower women, and boost support for family planning services and information, the U.N.’s goal of ensuring that all women have access to reproductive health services will not be met anytime soon. Fertility rates, as a result, will remain high, and dreams of eliminating poverty and hunger will remain elusive.

Reproductive choice can be a game changer for developing countries struggling to escape poverty and hunger, but only if we make reproductive freedom a reality.

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Robert Walker is the president of the Population Institute, an international 501(c)(3) nonprofit advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. The Institute seeks to promote universal access to family planning information, education and services.

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