7 challenges for 7 billion

G Magazine

Toward the end of 2011, the seventh billion person in the world was born. Our rapidly expanding population is putting phenomenal pressure on Earth - we take a look at the seven major challenges we are facing for the future.


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Since the world reached seven billion on 30 October 2011 there is much to be sober about. Almost one billion people lack access to safe drinking water, almost one billion are hungry, 2.6 billion people have no sanitation services and 1.5 billion people have no reliable source of energy.

The world’s population grew slowly initially – it took until 1804 to reach the first billion. The next billion took 123 years and thereafter it has been accelerating so fast that it took just thirteen years to add the last billion. By 2050 we are expected to be a global population of nine billion. So how can we meet the challenges of providing enough food, water and energy for all these people while at the same time managing the challenge of climate change?

1. Birth control

Hiding behind the extraordinarily large global population of seven billion is the fact that birth rates are actually declining. In the 1950s, the average fertility rate was six children for each woman, now the global average is 2.5. In some countries the fertility rate is even below the replacement rate. While it might not be until 2060 or later when the world population actually stops getting bigger, the decline in global growth rate actually began over 40 years ago.

Birth control is a vexed issue. For women living in poverty who want no more children, not having access to family planning can be devastating. Having babies more than every two years can affect their health and they may not have the money to feed their children. The UN reports that 215 million women don’t have access to family planning but would like it.

However, family planning must be provided sensitively. China’s one child policy and India’s mass sterilisations are infamous. Many women had to undergo forced abortions, and a preference for male children created a generation of men who can’t find wives. As a consequence, Western aid organisations became cautious about being seen to be funding population control programs as opposed to offering birth control. Furthermore, right-wing religious groups put political pressure on governments, particularly in the US, to not fund programs that included making abortions an available option. This has meant that funding for family planning has fallen sharply over the past two decades.

Experts suggest that simply providing birth control won’t necessarily work. “A holistic approach is extremely important for a successful family planning program. Women’s empowerment is the key,” says Udoy Saikia, senior lecturer in population studies at Flinders University. Providing birth control without considering social factors can prove to be a failure. Increased education plus economic growth is important. In poorer regions, having an extra child can be a form of social security for your own old age or can mean an extra worker. However, as wealth increases these requirements are less pressing and birth rates tend to drop, with very strong links shown between increasing wealth and lowering birth rates.

Countries which have been able to implement successful family planning schemes include Brazil and Iran. The story for Iran is particularly remarkable – in just 22 years Iran went from a birth rate of 7 to 1.9. These two success stories achieved lower birthrates by increasing information and availability of contraceptives.

2. Water

Despite living on a planet that is 70 per cent water, less than one per cent of the world’s water is available for human use, and increasing population and climate change could put even that at risk.

Clean, safe water is a basic human right as declared by the UN. On the surface its looks as though the situation is getting better – 87 per cent of the world’s population now has access to drinking water – up from 77 per cent in 1990. However the raw numbers still tell a dire story – 884 million still don’t have access to drinking water. And the situation for sanitation is much worse – 2.6 billion lack flushing toilets and 1.2 billion have no facility at all, putting them at risk from diarrhoeal disease.

According to the World Resources Institute, demand for water has tripled in the last 50 years due to increased population and economic growth. “It’s projected to grow by another 50 per cent by 2050 in developing countries and by 18 per cent in developed countries” says World Resources Institute’s Kirsty Jenkinson. Yet the World Bank predicts in its report Making the Most of Scarcity that by 2050 climate change and population growth could cut available water by half. “By 2025, the World Bank estimates that up to 3.5 billion people will be living in areas of acute water scarcity,” says Colin Chartres, director general of International Water Management Institute. The problem is that 70 per cent of water is used for agriculture, which means our food is also at risk.

Threats to water security are not just for the developing world. In fact, a recent study in Nature found that areas of high agricultural use and human settlement in Europe and US are most under threat. “We found that nearly 80 per cent of the world’s population is exposed to high levels of threat to water security,” says Charles Vörösmarty, a civil engineer at the City University of New York, one of the lead investigators of the analysis.

However, others disagree that scarcity is a problem. After five years research by 30 scientists, the Challenge Program on Water and Food found that scarcity is not the issue; rather it’s the inefficient use and inequitable distribution of water. “Yes, there is scarcity in certain areas, but our findings show that the problem overall is a failure to make efficient and fair use of the water available in these river basins. This is ultimately a political challenge, not a resource concern,” says Alain Vidal, director of the Challenge Program on Water and Food. “With modest improvements, we can generate two to three times more food than we are producing today.”

3. Economics

We’ve never had it so good. Australians have the second highest quality of life in the world after Norway according to the UN. The current economic system has provided for us well – we have world-class health care and education, and high incomes. The problem is it doesn’t work so well for the 2.7 billion or so in other parts of the world who live on less than $2 a day.

While capitalism has fueled great economic growth over the past hundred or so years, not everyone has benefited. It’s true that most countries are now richer – but it hasn’t been distributed evenly. According to a report by Credit Suisse, the richest 10 per cent of the world own 83 per cent of the wealth. So if you have a net worth of more than US$75,000 per adult (including housing) you are rich. On the other hand, the bottom half of the world collectively own two per cent of the world’s wealth, and most live in Africa.

It wasn’t always this bad for developing countries. Even though Africa now imports one third of its grain, in the 1960s Africa exported food. According to Cambridge economist Ha-Joon Chang, Africa had a respectable growth rate in the 1960s and 1970s of around 1.6 per cent – comparable with the rate achieved by rich countries during the Industrial Revolution – but that was before they were forced to adopt free trade policies.
Another problem with capitalism is that it’s built on the premise of endless growth fuelled by oil and coal, yet we live in a world of finite resources and the threat of climate change. Tim Jackson, professor of sustainable development at the University of Surrey and author of Prosperity Without Growth, says that if we want nine billion people in 2050 to enjoy an income comparable with the EU today, it will require an economy with a carbon intensity which is 55 times lower than today. This is most unlikely to happen.

Not surprisingly, there is growing recognition that the current economic system has major problems and it’s not just the ‘Occupy’ protesters who have this view. According to a recent Harvard study, even CEOs from around the world believe growing inequality, resource depletion and climate change will threaten economic prosperity. Lynn S. Paine, co-author of Capitalism at Risk says; “we don’t know the answer but we think that businesses can be innovative and find solutions”.

Jackson believes that we need to shift to an economic structure that is not based on growth. “The idea of a non-growing economy may be an anathema to an economist. But the idea of a continually growing economy is an anathema to an ecologist,” says Jackson. “It’s not a trivial challenge… we have organised our economies around growth.”

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