With the global population nearing 7 billion, overpopulation threatens rapid urbanization, environmental degradation, and skyrocketing demand for healthcare, education, resources, and jobs. But in some parts of the world, a shrinking population, rather than overpopulation, is the main concern, as fertility rates drop and a shrinking workforce is pushed to support social programs for an aging populace.
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The United Nations estimates that the world’s seven billionth baby will be born on October 31. That child could be born into a country like India, which is expected to overtake China as the world’s most populous country by 2030, or a country like China, with an aging population and a plummeting birth rate. In countries where the population is aging, “they are worried about productivity, about being able to maintain a critical mass of people,” said Babatunde Osotimehin, executive director of the U.N. Population Fund. In countries where the population is growing, a resource crunch is the main source of concern.
Countries facing exploding populations will encounter challenges in terms of migration, poverty, food security, water management, and climate change. With the global population having more than doubled over the last fifty years, resources are under more strain than ever. The world population is expected to grow by an additional 2-3 billion people in the next fifty years, raising concern over how the world will be able to accommodate their basic needs.
Water usage is expected to increase by 50% in developing nations between 2007 and 2025, and 18% in developed nations. “The problem is that 97.5 percent of it [water] is salty and…of the 2.5 percent that’s fresh, two-thirds of that is frozen,” said Rob Renner, executive director of the Colorado-based Water Research Foundation. “So there’s not a lot of fresh water to deal with in the world.”
Nutritious food is another area of concern. The World Bank estimates that 925 million people are hungry today. To feed the two billion more people expected by 2050, food production will have to increase by 70%, according to the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization. To do so, research, development, and expansion of agricultural programs are critical, but public funding for such efforts remains relatively low, and is in danger of declining.
Demographic imbalances also pose a problem, as more and more migrants make their way from poorer rural areas to richer urban centers. In 1950, about 730 million people lived in cities. By 2009, that number was nearly 3.5 billion, and in four decades, is expected to be 6.3 billion, according to the U.N. Department of Economic and Social Affairs. That growth stretches limited resources and infrastructure, but also means extreme flooding, storms, and rising sea levels resulting from climate change will have a larger impact on these large cities, putting greater numbers of people at risk.
“Any kind of plan for decentralizing the population requires a series of policies that work together,” said Wang Jianguo, a senior project officer on urbanization at the Asian Development Bank’s Beijing office. Most migrants are middle-class, blue-collar workers looking for better jobs or education for their children, or who are fleeing rural areas devastated by extreme weather events. “If you only have a population policy without an employment policy, without an industry development policy, education, medical policy, it won’t work,” said Jianguo.
Of course, many developed countries are facing a significantly different demographic anomaly: as their population declines, it also shifts, leading to an imbalance between the size of its working population and that of its retirees, for whom many governments provide expensive social programs. Countries like the U.S. rely on immigration to keep their populations steadily growing, as birth rates in most developed nations are declining to a level unable to keep pace with that of earlier generations. Should new immigration policies prevent the country from growing its workforce, then as the baby boomers age, a relatively smaller working force might be unable to sustain social spending, which could mean the end of many important government programs.