24 March, 2016

Population Crisis?

So where would all these people live?

Population is not growing equally throughout the world. In fact many countries like Germany and Russia have a declining population, due to their aging populaces and low birth rates. Japan has followed a similar trend; however lost numbers have not been offset by immigration.

In the last 30 years a large proportion of the increase has come from Asia. Most notably the populations of China and India have both well exceeded 1 billion people and the populations of Indonesia, Pakistan and Bangladesh are now all above 150 million.

The rise in numbers has largely been due to falling death rates, improved health and urbanisation. Thanks to the Green Revolution the agricultural output of ‘less developed’ countries has grown significantly since the 1950’s. With less people needed to farm the land many countries experienced a mass movement of people to the cities in search of work. Not only has this increased the access to health services but the economies of these countries have become less reliant on subsistence farming. Many of the top 20 megacities of today would not have featured on the list a mere 20 years ago.

Though the population of Asian countries has expanded considerably in the last century the rate of growth is beginning to slow down. China’s population growth has slowly steadied and is beginning to level off which will see India overtake their neighbour to the north in the next 20 years. But India is also considered to be on the tail-end of their population boom, similar to many other countries in south-east Asia. Fertility rates (average number of children per Woman) has fallen dramatically in the last half century, predominantly in Asia, Africa and South America which is a strong indicator that the health of people in these areas has vastly improved as more children are surviving to adulthood. Traditionally large families were needed for farming in less developed countries. But as more people migrate to cities and the foundation of these economies transform from agriculture to industry and services, the need for large families has diminished.

Despite a global falling birth rate the world population is still rising at exponential rate. Though, previously mentioned, fertility rate in Africa is falling the rate is still much higher than all the other continents. Africa over the next century will have the largest increase in population, and in turn, the creation of the next generation of megacities. Lagos, Nigeria; Cairo, Egypt; and Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo are all cities in Africa with a population of over 8 million, by 2025 these cities are expected to have 18.8 million, 14.7 million and 14.5 million people, respectively. Urbanisation is already fast underway in Africa, but what remains to be seen though is how the environment will be able to cope.

Unlike south-east Asia, the development of megacities in Africa face a unique challenge of balancing growth in a unstable ecosystem. The Sahel region of Africa stretches along the south of the Sahara desert and is prone to consistent droughts as well as the encroachment of the desert. The availability of fresh water will be an increasingly difficult resource to manage in the future due to population, and areas such as the Sahel region will find this especially challenging. With the current problems already evident in many parts of Africa, it is hard to see how the environment will be able to manage.

The Silver Lining

It may seem like overpopulation is something that we cannot control and for the most part that statement is true. However the rate of growth is also decreasing globally. So much so that humanity has just reached a remarkable benchmark in population: the child population has peaked! This means that the current amount of children in the world is not expected to shift in the foreseeable future from the benchmark of 2 billion. It is astonishing how a statistic such as this has not been widely publicised in conventional media.

Population will continue to rise of course. As the ‘peak child generation’ ages to adulthood the world population will begin to level off, estimated at anywhere from 11 billion to 15 billion. In fact, there is an argument to say that the stagnation in population may become a bigger problem than overpopulation. If all countries follow the trend of hitting a population ceiling and then declining like Russia and Japan, the more numerous older generations will need to be supported by a smaller quantity of the young working generation.

Hans Rosling is a professor of global health, known best for his talent in ‘making statistics sing’ and highlighting milestones such as ‘peak child’ population. Rosling has also raised the point that the world of today is very different from that of 50 years ago when there was a clear division of a rich and a poor world.

Another anecdote that Rosling shares is his changing global ‘pin code’ which is currently 1-1-1-4, indicating the billions of people in The Americas, Europe, Africa and Asia, respectively. By 2050 the code is expected to be 1-1-2-5 and when the 22nd century rolls around in 2100 the code will be 1-1-4-5. Given this code, the Indian Ocean will boast the busiest sea routes anywhere in the world. In comparison Western Europe and North America will have less than 10% of the world’s population. The North Atlantic of the future could be considered as the ‘backwaters of the world’.

Hans Rosling’s investment tip: Buy land on the African east coast.

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