World View : The Fuse Still Sizzles on World Population Bomb : India is emblematic. It lowered fertility rates, but the numbers keep growing.
Almost half a century after the first alert about the Earth’s swelling population, humankind has entered a critical transition. And no place is more representative of the change than Bombay, which doubles as India’s wealthiest city and home to Asia’s largest slum, the notorious Dharavi.
Dharavi, a former garbage dump, has been blanketed by almost a million squatters fleeing the poverty of rural India. Hundreds more arrive weekly to live in the stinking squalor of tattered burlap and rag huts, with no access to running water or electricity and only one public toilet for every few dozen families. Women rely on a polluted marsh for cleaning. Barefoot, ill-clad tots play in dusty alleys. Many of their preteen siblings are already scrambling for work.
Dharavi symbolizes teeming India, now expected to crack the 1-billion population level by the year 2000--and then to surpass China as the world’s most populous country by 2035.
Yet Bombay also reflects a changing India. The world’s oldest official family-planning program, headquartered in the bustling port city, is estimated to have helped India avert at least 90 million births--equivalent to the population of Mexico--since the 1950s through a mix of voluntary and coercive programs.
Now, as the 21st Century nears, India is a microcosm of the world, with both good news and bad.
“We’ve made enormous progress in the use of family-planning methods around the world. Over the past 30 years, use of birth control in developing countries has increased from 10% of couples to about 55%,” said Dr. J. Joseph Speidel, president of Population Action International (PAI), a nonprofit research organization in Washington.
“The average number of children per woman has declined from six to 3.6--more than half the distance to a two-child family,” he said. An average of 2.1 children per woman is considered replacement level--or zero growth.
In India, traditional patterns are shifting significantly. Birth control is now used by 45% of married couples. In Bombay, the practice of birth control has increased in five years from 40% to 56% of couples, according to U.N. reports.
These breakthroughs do not, however, mean a decline in the number of the Earth’s inhabitants. “Absolute growth” is still adding ever-greater numbers.
“The bad news is that the number of young people entering childbearing years is so large that the absolute size of world population is growing. The yearly increase in population has risen from 75 million in 1969 to 93 million today,” Speidel said.
Even after fertility rates fall, absolute increases continue through a whole life cycle, or about 70 years--a phenomenon called “population momentum.” So the world is still a long way from stabilizing its numbers.
Despite India’s declining fertility rate, for example, its population doubled from 342 million to 685 million in 34 years--between 1947 and 1981. Less than 13 years later, it has reached 897 million, or almost triple the 1947 total, according to PAI.
The numbers are taking a mounting toll on quality of life.
“Bombay is a city built for 2 million trying to cope with 12 million and faced with up to 16 million by 2000,” said Avadia Wadia, who founded India’s Family Planning Assn. in 1951 and is the leader of India’s population movement.
“A half-century ago these avenues were full of blossoming trees, and we had beautiful beaches. Now there aren’t many trees left, and over half the population lives in slums. And compared with some of them, Dharavi is almost a showcase.”
On the eve of the U.N. Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, which is scheduled for Sept. 5-13, U.N. experts offer three predictions about how the so-called “demographic transition” will end.
* The best-case scenario is a uniform worldwide decline to 1.9 births per family, lower than replacement level. World population would then increase from today’s 5.6 billion to a peak of 8 billion in 2050, and then decline to 5.6 billion by 2150.
* The medium scenario is a slower decline to replacement-level fertility, stabilizing population at 11.5 billion people, more than double current numbers, by 2150.
* The worst-case scenario is a continuation of current reduced fertility rates but no further declines. By 2150, the world would then have 694 billion people--124 times today’s total.
The worst case is staggering because humankind took untold millennia to reach its first billion in 1800. And it is even more daunting because it doesn’t allow for a small lapse to previous fertility patterns.
The impact on some countries would be devastating long before 2150. India already squeezes 16% of the world’s people onto 2.4% of the Earth’s land. Without further inroads in slowing growth rates, its population will triple again over the next half-century, according to PAI figures.
“Even in the best case, even if birthrates are on a continuous drop, we’re going to add a billion people every 10 or 11 years well into the next century,” said Carl Haub, demographer at the Population Reference Bureau, a private research organization.
“Unless we bring the numbers down, we will face economic, development and health problems of a magnitude that we don’t know yet. Many developing countries won’t be able to deal with them. And the developed world won’t be able to bail them out.”
Of the three scenarios, the second is now most likely, demographers predict, due to changes in both the problem and responses to it since the first summit of experts in Rome in 1954 drew attention to what became known as the “population bomb.”
One basic change since then is that population is no longer framed solely in terms of teeming masses of new babies. Of growing importance is the older generation.
Since India attained its independence in 1947, for example, average life expectancy in the country--which mirrors statistics in the developing world--has increased from 32 to 59 years, said Wadia, the Bombay population authority. Improved living conditions and health care in the 20th Century have effectively produced a whole new generation at the top.
India, with more than 54 million, and China have the world’s largest populations over 60. Wadia is herself over 80.
“It is declining mortality, not rising fertility, that is causing the current population surge. Over the past 40 years, fertility rates have fallen in most parts of the world. But because death rates have dropped even more steeply, the absolute number of births has gone up,” said Laurie Ann Mazur, editor of “Beyond the Numbers,” a new anthology on population.
In the past four decades, life expectancy has increased from 66 to 75 years in wealthy countries. By 2030, the worldwide average will rise to 72 years, while the average person in some developed countries will live well into the 80s, according to the World Bank. And living beyond 100 will not be unusual.
But new issues can in turn create new complications.
“The problems of an aging society include housing, economic support and health care. As people live longer, society requires a different type of medical care and medicines,” said M. Faith Mitchell, senior State Department coordinator for population.
Developing regions will be most challenged. Like the majority of countries, India has no social security. Elsewhere, socialism’s demise and subsidy cutbacks as part of economic restructuring have left many elderly with few benefits to fall back on.
“We are not accustomed to people living so long. In the next five or six years, we’ll have to make care for the aging one of the components of our planning,” said Maher Mahran, Egypt’s population and family planning minister.
Singapore has already started. Fearful that its aging population will become dependent on a safety net designed for the poor, Singapore’s Parliament debated a bill this year allowing elderly parents to sue their children for maintenance if they are abandoned financially. By 2025, 25% of Singapore’s population is expected to be over 60. About 10% is over 60 now.
A second conspicuous feature of the demographic transition is an unprecedented imbalance in numbers, both within countries and between them.
India’s biggest breakthrough has been in Kerala, a southwestern state of 29 million people, denser than Bangladesh and more populous than Canada. Per capita income there is among India’s lowest.
Yet Kerala’s fertility rate of 2.2 children per woman is almost at replacement level, only a fraction higher than the U.S. average of 2.1. Kerala’s birthrate is now a third lower than that in the rest of India.
“In the 1950s, we had a problem in every part of this country. Now, the goals of population programs have been reached in Kerala and much of the south,” Wadia said. “About a third of the country has completed or is passing through the demographic transition.”
At the other extreme is Uttar Pradesh, India’s northeastern state of 140 million. As a separate country, it would be the world’s seventh-most-populous nation. Its fertility rate of 5.5 is also among the world’s highest.
The imbalance is mirrored around the world. The populations of 58 countries will grow by more than 100% over the next 35 years, and 20 countries will grow by more than 150%, according to a new World Bank survey. The six fastest-growing areas are Oman, the Gaza Strip, Niger, Yemen, Ethiopia and Angola.
Not all Third World countries are problem areas. In Thailand, couples using contraceptives rose from 10% in 1970 to 67% in 1987. The average number of children plummeted from 6.2 to 2.4 per woman, PAI reports. And between 1960 and 1990, Third World women using contraceptives increased from 18% to 50%, the Population Reference Bureau (PRB) reports.
Yet until the year 2030, 95% of population growth will be in the Third World, most where income averages less than $2 a day.
“For many countries, population growth will keep outstripping their ability to provide for people. It’ll be a perpetual quest, like Alice in Wonderland--going as fast as you can but still not able to get there,” said Kaval Gulhati, Indian-born co-founder of the Center for Development and Population Activities, which is active in the former East Bloc and in the Third World.
In contrast, the developed world has basically made the transition. Japan’s fertility rate plunged from 5.1 children per woman in 1925 to 1.53 children per woman in 1991, PRB reports. Six European states have even lower rates. Italy averages only 1.3 children per woman.
And authorities in France, Germany, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Bulgaria and Hungary have told the United Nations that their birthrates are too low.
The implications of the imbalance are vast.
Jobs will be a major challenge, the U.N. Population Fund reports. Developing countries will have to create 30 million jobs yearly just to maintain current employment levels. Although food production has kept up with population growth on paper, distribution is uneven. One in eight people on Earth now does not have enough to eat.
And in Africa, where population is expected to grow 3% per year through 2000, the food supply is projected to grow only 2%, contributing to a 50% increase in the number of poor, the International Food Policy Research Institute reports. And the limit of production may have been reached.
“The world’s fishermen and farmers can no longer keep up with the growth in world population. This means that providing seafood and grain for the 90 million people being added each year is possible only by reducing consumption by those already here,” said Lester Brown, president of Worldwatch Institute and author of “Full House,” a new report on population and resources.
“Before this decade is over, food security may replace military security as a principal preoccupation of governments,” he said.
The numbers crunch will be most severe in cities. In 15 years, 368 cities in the developing world will have more than a million inhabitants, according to the United Nations. Because most don’t have the resources or infrastructures to cope, vast numbers of people will live in slums.
With annual population growth of 4%, Bombay faces a shortage of 2.5 million houses by 2000, when 75% of its estimated 16 million people will live in huts or on the pavement, Indian demographers predict. Housing is already so tight in Bombay that the sturdier shanties in Dharavi sell for hundreds of dollars.
“The rapid, unprecedented pace of population growth dwarfs all trends in terms of its implications for the future of human, national and international security,” said Timothy E. Wirth, U.S. undersecretary of state for global affairs.
“Human security is about the 1 billion individuals who live in abject poverty. It is about the 800 million who go hungry every day and the 240 million malnourished, the 1.3 billion without clean water and more than 2 billion without safe sanitation.”
All those factors contribute to tension. Population is considered a component, for example, in the breakdown of order in Rwanda and Somalia. Dharavi has twice been the site of deadly clashes, while Uttar Pradesh has a long history of communal violence in which population plays a role.
“Whether within countries or between regions, an imbalance raises the likelihood of conflict. When one country or group of people is doing well and others are not, one group wants more, and the other wants to hang on to what they have. This mitigates against peace,” said Mitchell, the State Department’s population official.
Swelling population in developing countries also makes the likelihood of catastrophic economic harm from natural disasters four times greater and heavy death tolls twice as likely, according to a 1994 U.N. survey. As numbers increase, people are forced to settle in disaster-prone areas.
Dharavi, for example, borders a marsh. During the dry season, the newer huts precariously abut its murky waters. During the rainy season, many are flooded, forcing families to move again, sometimes onto Bombay sidewalks.
Elsewhere, imbalances can contribute to reversals. In Europe, dwindling ranks of young workers and soaring numbers of pensioners have led some governments to adopt policies--boosting maternity and child care benefits--to slow population declines.
Imbalances are also reflected regionally, according to a new World Bank report. Between 1995 and 2030, Africa’s population will increase 116%, while North America’s will grow only 24%. Asia’s will increase 47%, while Europe’s will grow by only 1%.
As the issues change, so do the solutions.
Since 1951, India has tried a host of approaches, including coercive promotion of sterilization during the mid-1970s. The backlash brought down a government, but sterilization and abortion are still provided free. Family planning is now promoted in street plays and puppet shows, TV ads, billboard campaigns and outreach programs.
Last year, India’s Parliament even considered a bill banning national and state legislators who had more than two children. The law would have affected the prime minister and family welfare minister, both of whom have eight children, as well as 397 of 508 members of Parliament, according to Family Planning World. The measure didn’t pass.
The new model--for India as well as the developing world--is Kerala. Its emphases on women’s rights, education, land reform, food security and health services have led to some of the highest standards of living in the Third World--and halved the birthrate in two generations.
The status of women is a critical component. “Measures such as later age of marriage, education, occupations and the ability to exercise legal, political and economic rights are a powerful stimulus to use family planning,” Wadia said.
“This has been amply demonstrated in Kerala, Sri Lanka, throughout East Asia in Thailand and Indonesia, where women who have higher status and some education and access to suitable health services also choose to have smaller families,” she said.
In Kerala, literacy is almost twice as high as in any other Indian state. The average life expectancy is over 70 years--25% higher than in the rest of India. And 80% of couples now use family planning--compared with only 28% in Uttar Pradesh.
Dharavi is also making inroads. Literacy among women has increased to 76% there, compared to the national average of 39%. And now 63% of the girls in the slums wait until until they are 18 or older to marry, and 76% do not have their first child until that age. The average number of children in Bombay’s slums has declined to 2.2 per woman, says India’s Family Planning Assn.
“Forty years ago, there was a magic-bullet approach that said dispensing family planning services was sufficient to reduce population growth to ideal levels,” Mitchell said. “But now we recognize that family planning is only one part of a bigger picture.”
But just how much work lies ahead is again reflected in India. Demographers now predict that even if India achieves replacement level as soon as 2015, its growth will not level out before reaching 1.9 billion people--about a third of the Earth’s current numbers.
Times Washington Bureau librarian Pat Welch contributed to this article.
* In Perspective
“We are burdensome to the world, the resources are scarcely adequate to us, and our needs straiten us and complaints are everywhere while already nature does not sustain us.”
--Tertullian, about AD 200, a Latin ecclesiastical writer in Carthage
* A Glossary
Birthrate: The number of births per 1,000 population in a given year.
Total fertility rate: The average number of children born alive to a woman in her lifetime.
Replacement-level fertility: The fertility rate of 2.1 children per woman that will eventually result in zero growth of national, regional or world population.
Population momentum: The tendency for population growth to continue beyond the time that replacement-level fertility has been achieved because of a relatively high concentration of people in the childbearing years.
* Facts and figures
About 93 million people, roughly the population of Mexico, are added to the world each year.
America’s population, more than 259 million, is the world’s third-largest, after China and India.
U.S. life expectancy is 75.5 years, lower than in Japan, France, Canada and Australia. Its infant mortality is about the same as Hong Kong but worse than Europe’s average.
Timothy E. Wirth, U.S. undersecretary of state for global affairs, offers brightly packaged condoms to office visitors. “They go faster than a New York minute,” he says. “I’m constantly having to replace them.”
Since 1950, the world has consumed as many goods and services as all previous generations combined. The industrialized world accounts for only 22% of Earth’s inhabitants but accounts for two-thirds of consumption.
The urban population of the developing world is expected to nearly triple by 2025. Developing countries must create 30 million new jobs each year just to maintain current employment levels.
About one in four births in the developing world outside China is unwanted.
* The conference
The U.N. Conference on Population and Development, meeting Sept. 5-13 in Cairo, will consider a draft plan for improvements in these areas:
Family-planning services and reproductive care.
Children’s health care.
Access to education, particularly for girls.
The status of females.
Economic and social development for the poor, the disadvantaged and the elderly.
Male participation and responsibility in family and community life.
Reducing consumption of goods and services.
SOURCES: Population Reference Bureau. “Beyond the Numbers” by Carl Haub and Martha Farnsworth Riche. “World Urbanization Prospects: The 1992 Revision,” United Nations. “Population and the Environment: The Challenges Ahead,” U.N. Population Fund. Times staff.
Numbering the Nations
Over the next 35 years, the six fastest growing areas in the world are expected to be:
Between 1995 and 2030, the world’s six major regions will have widely diverse population growth patterns.*
CENTRAL AND SOUTH AMERICA
*These figures are based on fertility patterns and do not factor in immigration.
In the same period, several countries are expected to witness a decline in their numbers because births per family are lower than replacement levels. Examples:
Source: 1994 World Bank Report ‘World Population Projections 1994-95
The United States has the fourth highest birth rate in the developed world. But Central and South America are growing twice as fast as North America
Africa’s population is expected to grow 3% per year through 2000. By contrast, many European nations say their birth rate is too low. In Asia, India is expected to surpass China’s population by 2035.