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Predictions for Population Growth

Rapid population growth and relatively high fertility levels in the world’s 48 least developed countries, and rising life expectancy everywhere, will help push the world’s population to about 9.3bn by 2050, according to a UN report published recently.

It estimates that the world’s population is growing by 1.2% annually, or 77m people, and six countries account for half the increase: India, China, Pakistan, Nigeria, Bangladesh and Indonesia.

The population division of the UN department of economic and social affairs points to the growing imbalance between the developed and developing world, the population growth concentrated overwhelmingly in those countries least able to support it. The 48 least developed countries are expected to nearly triple their populations, from 658m to 1.8bn.

These increases, if realised, are certain to intensify pressure on food and water resources in many parts of the developing world, and they present an enormous challenge to international aid, poverty reduction and education programmes. They are also expected to exacerbate problems such as global warming and environmental degradation.

More international migration will be another consequence, the report says.

In the EU, increased immigration will be essential if workforce levels are to be sustained as the indigenous population ages, it argues.

The population of the less developed regions is projected to rise steadily to 8.2bn in 2050, it says.

Even this startling projection is based on the assumption that fertility will continue to decline. If that failed to happen, the population of less developed regions would reach an enormous 11.9bn.

Looked at another way, the UN figures suggest that within 30 years nine out of every 10 people will be living in a developing country. One in every six will be living in India where the current population of just over 1bn is projected to rise by 600m.

By contrast, population levels in Europe and Japan are projected to decline sharply because fertility is falling below the replacement level – that is to say, below an average of 2.1 children per woman.

By mid-century, the populations of Germany and Japan will have fallen on current trends by 14%, that of Italy by 25% and that of Russia and Ukraine by between 28% and 40%.

But this trend will be mitigated to some degree by more immigration, the report says, amounting to a net average annual gain in developed countries of about 2m.

Because of low fertility, this migration has a significant impact.

Britain, for example, has a fertility level of only 1.6 but its total population, currently 68m, is likely to be about the same in 2050, owing to immigration.

The United States is likely to remain a prime target for migrants, giving it an annual influx of about 1m people and a projected population by 2050 of about 500m; it has 332m now.

The report suggests that Africa, one of the areas of biggest population growth, will have three times as many people as Europe by 2050 – in all, 2.2bn Africans against 1.3bn now. That compares starkly with the situation in 1950, when Europe accounted for almost a quarter of the world’s population and Africa only 8%.

The population explosion in Africa, Asia and Latin America would have been even more dramatic but for the impact of the HIV/Aids epidemic, the report says. But despite an expected 300m deaths in 50 years, the continent’s population will still rise.

For the nine most HIV affected countries in Africa, the population is projected to increase to 200m in 2050. Even in Botswana, where HIV prevalence is 36%, or in Swaziland and Zimbabwe, where it is above 25%, the numbers are projected to increase significantly; by 37% in Botswana, 148% in Swaziland and 86% in Zimbabwe.

Although Aids has reduced life expectancy by three years in the 45 countries worst hit, the average human life span is still increasing there and elsewhere.

Furthermore, the life expectancy gap between rich and poor countries appears to be closing. In less developed regions, life expectancy will increase by 12 years, to 75, in the next 50 years; in developed regions, it will rise by seven years, from the current 75 years to 82. In Britain, life expectancy is currently 81 years, rising to 83 by 2050.

The prospect for the industrial world is one of elderly populations and shrinking workforces ever more dependent on migrant labour.

One-fifth of all Europeans were aged 60 or more in 1998. By 2050 they may represent more than one-third of all adults, with children making up only 14% of the population.