Seven Billion and Counting

Steven Spielberg has an uncanny knack for tapping into the public's fantasies and fears. So the fact that his latest TV blockbuster, Terra Nova, is about an escape from an over-populated and polluted Earth should give us food for thought as we earthlings pass the seven billion mark.

Even though it took until 1804 to reach the first billion, the pace of growth of the world population has been accelerating dramatically since then. We have grown from six to seven billion in little more than a dozen years and global population is projected to reach nine billion in by about mid-century. So it is easy to see why there are worries -- picked up by Hollywood screenwriters -- about what population growth means for our future, our quality of life and the health of our planet.

But the numbers tell only part of the story, and in fact, many of our worries are misplaced. Yes, seven billion is a big number, but at this point in human history, our real concerns should be about population dynamics, the quality of human life and the equitable distribution of resources.

Population growth is fueled as much by the fact that we are living longer as by fertility rates. While the global fertility rate has actually dropped by half since 1950, average life expectancy has increased by an astonishing 20 years during that same period. And while the prospect of living longer may sound like a good thing, extended life spans present new challenges for countries with a declining number of young people and a growing population of elderly citizens in need of support.

Aggregate population figures also mask important regional differences. While 40% of countries have fertility rates that are projected to keep their population figures stable over the coming decades, another 40% have fertility rates below the level needed to replenish their current populations. Germany, to cite one example, is expected to see its population decline from 82 to 75 million by 2050, while Ethiopia, with about the same current population, will probably add 60 million people in that same time period.

It is these differing fertility rates more than the global numbers that deserve our close attention, because nearly all the population growth we are seeing -- which could add 78 million people to planet Earth this year alone -- is occurring in less developed countries. Almost one out of every seven people already doesn't have enough food to eat and the overwhelming majority live in countries with high birth rates. This means that unless these less developed nations are able to turn their economies around, an even larger number of people will be faced with inadequate nutrition and health care, poor housing, and limited access to basic services.

UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund, was set up 44 years ago to help countries use population data and develop research to meet these challenges, and over the years we have learned that there are no easy answers to these complex and interlinked problems.

We know, for example, that high fertility rates put a brake on development, and that when prosperity is increased, fertility rates decline. But economic progress in some developing nations has proved to be painfully slow, and prosperity has been losing the race with population growth in many countries for far too long. It is also clear that improving the health of women and adolescent girls is particularly effective in stimulating economic development, which is why the UN and UNFPA have made the health of women, adolescent girls and children a special focus.

The speed and direction of population trends is, of course, determined by millions of individual and family decisions. But an estimated 215 million women in developing countries are denied their reproductive rights due to a lack of access to effective reproductive health care or family planning. And as a result, too many women give birth too young, too often, and with too little time between pregnancies for the good of their health or the health of their children. This has a devastating impact on families, communities, and national economies. Yet, 17 years after the world agreed to promote universal access to reproductive health, donor assistance for family planning has fallen sharply, from $722 million in 1998 to $572 million in 2008 -- although the provisional 2009 figures show some increase.

Reversing this trend to meet the need for reproductive health care in the developing world, particularly modern family planning, would cut unintended pregnancies by two-thirds. Together with increased investment in women's health and education, it would help reduce poverty, slow population growth and promote sustainable development.

At UNFPA, we like to say that every pregnancy should be wanted and every childbirth safe, and that everyone should have the right to decide on the number and spacing of their children. These ideas may not be as exciting as a Hollywood movie, but if we were to act on them, we could transform our world.

Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin is an Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations and Executive Director of UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund.