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Issue 2, February 1999

Newsletter Index

Balancing Population, Development
and the Environment
The Year of
According to United Nations demographers, the Earth’s population is projected to pass the 6 billion mark sometime in October 1999. It will only have taken 11 years, the shortest period ever, for humanity to grow by one more billion people. The UN Population Fund (UNFPA), estimates that by 2025, the planet will be host to over 8 billion people.
Despite these numbers and thanks to unprecedented efforts over the last 30 years, the momentum of population growth has slowed and could further slow down if efforts are maintained. Since the 1960s, the rate of population growth has declined from 2 per cent to less than 1.5 per cent annually. But because of the ever increasing population base, each year 70 million people are added to the planet’s population, compared with 53 million in the 1960s.
The good news however is that more and more people, all over the world, want and are having smaller families. For instance, in Kenya fertility has fallen from a high of more than 8 children per woman in the 1970s to under 5.4 children in the early 1990s. Fertility has also declined in Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia and Zimbabwe. These encouraging results have been made possible by a wider availability and easier access to good quality family planning services, improved education and increased women’s empowerment. Nevertheless, in many countries there is still a dire need for reproductive health services.
Other factors for the declining birth rates, are the higher than expected mortality in countries affected by wars, such as Rwanda, Burundi or Liberia, and the spread of the AIDS pandemic. The United Nations estimates that death rates in eastern Africa are 25 per cent higher than they would be in the absence of AIDS.
Population Trends
Growth rates vary greatly among regions and among countries within the same region. Most visible is the division between developed and developing nations. The industrialised world is home to 1.12 billion people with a growth rate of 0.3 per cent a year, while developing countries have 4.6 billion inhabitants and a growth rate of 1.6 per cent annually. Moreover, the UNFPA predicts that for developed countries, rates will dip below zero before 2025 and that over the next 30 years, almost 98 per cent of global population growth will take place in developing nations. These predictions do not however take into account the possible effects of migration.
Today, sub-Saharan Africa is the region with the highest population growth rate. Africa’s population is presently estimated at 731 million people and will most probably nearly double in size by the year 2030. In Southern Africa, growth rates fluctuate between 1.6 and 2 per cent, but countries like Malawi, Mozambique, Angola and Uganda are among those with the highest fertility rates, with on average 7 children per woman.
Five Years after Cairo
In 1994, the United Nations held the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo. This year in July, the UN General Assembly will host a Special Session (ICPD+5) to review and appraise the implementation of the Programme of Action adopted in the Egyptian capital. Ahead of the ICPD+5 event, the Netherlands convened a Forum in The Hague from 8 to 12 February, where delegates from around the world discussed and addressed population and development issues.
In The Hague, Dr. Nafis Sadik, Executive Director of the UNFPA, reminded participants of some of the decisions taken in Cairo. "As you know the ICPD Programme of Action called on all countries to provide universal access to a full range of high quality reproductive health services through the primary health care system, by 2015, and recognised the rights of all couples and individuals to decide freely and responsibly the number, spacing and timing of their children and to have the information and means to do so free from coercion, discrimination and violence". Dr. Sadik recognised that many countries had taken positive actions following the Cairo conference and particularly praised South Africa where reproductive rights have been incorporated in the Constitution. She added however, that renewed efforts and means were needed to fully implement the ICPD programme.
She also told delegates that each year, nearly 600.000 women in developing countries die of causes related to pregnancy and childbearing and that a third of these can be attributed to unwanted pregnancy and the failure or inadequate availability of contraceptive services. Furthermore, some 350 million women still lack access to reproductive health information and services.
The Cairo Conference put forward the crucial and vital role played by women when it comes to implementing development and population strategies. Renewed efforts and measures are thus urgently needed to further promote and enforce women’s empowerment as well as gender equality and equity.
The Financial Climate
The Executive Director of the UN Population Fund noted that "numerous Governments, due to precarious financial and economic situations, have reduced spending in all sectors, including social sectors". As a matter of fact, the recent economic slowdown witnessed by many regions in the world, has had an adverse effect on the pace of implementation of the Cairo Programme of Action. Globalisation, structural adjustment programmes and the disengagement by many Governments from their social responsibilities, have led to the dismantling of social safety nets and real cuts in social budgets. The poor and particularly women and children have been the worst affected by these economic trends.
In Cairo, delegates set a resource target for reproductive health services for the year 2000 of US$ 17 billion (5.7 billion from donor countries and 11.3 billion from domestic resources). This target is still far from being reached 4 years later and will most probably not been achieved by the end of the millennium. The UN warns that failure to achieve the goals of Cairo will be dramatic and generate faster population growth, and in the larger context of sustainable development, will have negative consequences on the quality of life of all humankind.
Population and the Environment
All human life depends on three resources: AIR, WATER and LAND. All three are put under heavy pressure and damaged by human activity. However, not all human beings have the same impact on nature and its resources. Although population size impacts on the environment, it is mainly excessive consumption and wasteful production patterns which exacerbate environmental degradation. In this respect, developed nations have the greatest negative impact on the global environment.
According to the UNFPA, the 20 per cent of the people living in the highest income industrialised countries are responsible for 86 per cent of total private consumption while the poorest 20 per cent account for a mere 1.3 per cent. The same imbalance also applies for carbon dioxide emissions which are responsible for global warming. The richest fifth of the planet account for 53 per cent of these emissions, while the poorest fifth only represent 3 percent of COČ emissions.
Not only is the population of the Earth growing, but more and more people justifiably aspire to a higher standard of living. This will accentuate the pressure on the environment, unless sustainable ways of using natural resources and meeting human needs are developed. As already mentioned above, human life depends on three resources which at present are either being depleted, degraded or polluted. For instance, each year, an estimated 5 to 7 million hectares of agricultural lands are lost to accelerating land degradation and rapid urbanisation. A sixth of the world’s land area (nearly 2 billion hectares) is now degraded as a result of overgrazing and poor farming practices. Another 16 to 20 million hectares of tropical forests and woodlands are equally lost each year. Humans are destroying the very resources they depend upon for their food, housing and energy requirements. This is particularly obvious in developing countries, where the poor are the first to suffer from the consequences of environmental degradation.
Each day, 230.000 newcomers are added to the Earth’s population according to the National Geographic. Providing food for everybody is not so much a question of producing more but rather of distributing more equally among all the inhabitants of our Planet. While most developed countries grow more food than their citizen could ever eat, 80 developing countries cannot produce enough food to feed their own population according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). The close relationship between food supply, politics, international trade and environmental degradation needs to be reconsidered and urgently addressed by decision makers if the Earth’s bounty is ever to be redistributed in a sustainable and equitable way.
In their final declaration, legislators present at the International Forum of Parliamentarians in The Hague, stated that "access to food and water is a basic human right". Today, roughly 1.3 billion people still live in absolute poverty and are directly affected by food shortages and environmental degradation. The UNFPA estimates that 1.1 billion people were without access to clean water in 1994 and that 2.8 billion people lacked access to sanitation services. The poor are the first victims of waterborne diseases. They are also the most exposed to fumes and polluted rivers. Ironically, it is often the poor themselves who deplete the resources on which they depend for their survival, by applying unsustainable agricultural practices such as over-grazing, burning and razing forests or over-pumping groundwater resources. But for those eking out a living, environmentally sound practices are often a luxury and rarely a choice.
The solution to this dilemma, or at least part of the solution, lies in an enhanced and extended North/South cooperation. Funds, but particularly environmentally sound technologies and environmental education must be made more widely available to developing nations. Renewed efforts must also be made to further slow population growth. " With slower growth rates, countries will have more time to prepare for the still inevitable, if smaller, population increases to come – time to build schools, dig sewers and lay water pipes", says the UNFPA.
It is clear that population issues cannot be seen in isolation but within the broader context of sustainable development. It is by improving the ways we consume and produce that we will eventually be able to improve the quality of lives of all those who depend on Mother Earth for their livelihood and survival.
Francis Caas
Executive Director, GLOBE Southern Africa
For further information Population issues and the upcoming Special Session of the United Nations General Assembly, please contact the GLOBE Office in Cape Town or access the UNFPA website at: http://www.unfpa.org/.
Water.gif (1513 bytes)Tackling the World’s Freshwater Crisis
More than 119 delegates from 57 countries and 20 representatives of international organisations gathered in Geneva from the 8th to the 12th of February to consider how the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) and the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) could best tackle the world’s looming crises over the lack of freshwater. This was the Fifth Joint International Conference on Hydrology that was co-sponsored by the two organisations.
Increasing Scarcity
According to the experts present, the extent of the problem is vast with many of the poorer communities in developing countries facing catastrophic consequences if nothing is done to stop this escalating global water crisis. In his opening address, the Director General of UNESCO Mr. Federico Mayor claimed that "in 25 years, per capita annual water availability has dropped by about one third" and "in arid zones, water resources are scarcer than ever". He also stated that "freshwater problems are threatening to become a major limiting factor in socio-economic development", and that in terms of conflicts "cross border water systems are often the source of friction between adjacent regions and countries".
In his opening address, Professor Obasi, the Secretary-General of WMO, looked ahead thirty years and claimed that "present population growth rates, current observations of pollution, salinisation, water-logging and falling ground-water tables, all indicate a high increase in the number of countries that will experience water stress and scarcity". At present 29 countries suffer from moderate to severe water scarcity. It is projected though that the number of people living in water scarce countries will rise from 132 million in 1990 to somewhere between 653 million and 904 million by the year 2025.
Rising Demand
Population growth, increasing urbanisation and changing consumption patterns were all cited as reasons for both a greater demand being put on the water supply and a parallel increase in waste water. According to Mayor, more and more water is constantly being required for irrigation to secure an adequate food supply, while at the same time, the increasing use of fertilisers to generate higher harvests, is producing more pollution that ultimately drains into rivers and groundwater systems, thus making the whole process unsustainable. On the industrial side the very same pattern is at play, with that sector being both a large water consumer, as well as in turn being responsible for releasing pollutants that are then disposed of in waterways.
The increasing levels of pollution in water have naturally led to its decreasing usability, with growing competition between urban and rural water users exacerbating the problem even further.
Overcoming the Challenges
One of the greatest problems identified by participants in overcoming these challenges is the lack of sufficient and reliable information on water availability, its quality, and water use in many areas of the world. There was therefore a strong call by delegates for the WMO and UNESCO to assist countries in collecting this sorely needed basic information. In this vein, mention was made of the new developments and improvements in modern earth observation technologies that allow a wider base of relevant data to be obtained much faster. It was also seen as imperative though for UNESCO and WMO to encourage the scientific community to put its weight behind these efforts and for facilities to be developed where specialists and water managers can be trained. These specialists would then be entrusted with the task of interpreting the technical information in terms that policy-makers would be able to use when making their decisions. This point ties in with a sentiment that was first expressed by Mr. Mayor in his opening address, namely that "we have to ensure that the scientific and technical effort is undertaken alongside a political commitment to sustainable development".
Mr. Mayor also highlighted the fact that it was not just scientific enquiry that was needed to address this global problem. His call was for a more holistic, multidisciplinary and integrated approach that sought to deal with the numerous social issues pertaining to the water crisis. In his own words, "it is only when there is a general awareness and widely based understanding of this issue that we will be able to implement successful strategies, because the way in which we use water is deeply rooted in our every day behaviour and attitudes to natural resources".
Ultimately though, the conference was not so much about creating new mechanisms or institutions, but rather about how the present ones could be used more effectively both at a national and international level. The conference further highlighted the complex nature of this crisis and the concomitant interaction that is required in the social, political and economic arenas to overcome it. "It is here at the level of interaction", according to Mr. Mayor, "that we can hope for breakthroughs for truly sustainable water resource development and management, interaction between specialists, with strong public and political support for the protection of our planet’s freshwater resources".
Lance Greyling
Programme Manager
GLOBE Southern Africa