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In a mere half-century, the number of people on the planet has soared from 3 billion to 7 billion, placing us squarely in the midst of the most rapid expansion of world population in our 50,000-year history — and placing ever-growing pressure on the Earth and its resources. Such an outcome would clearly have enormous social and environmental implications, including placing enormous stress on the world’s food and water resources, spurring further loss of wild lands and biodiversity, and hastening the degradation of the natural systems that support life on Earth.
But most future population projections assume a continuing decline.
Often fertility rates might decline from a higher level and then “stall” for a time, not continuing their downward trajectories to the two-child family, resulting in a higher-than-projected population.
The Indian example illustrates an important trend: that the challenge of soaring populations will increasingly be concentrated in the poorest countries, and in the poorest regions of nations such as India.
The real possibility of fertility decline stopping before the two-children level is reached requires demographers, policy makers, and environmentalists to seriously consider that population growth in the coming century will come in at the high end of demographic projections.
What will it take to reach large, often inaccessible rural populations, whose desire to limit family size is frequently quite limited and whose “ideal” number of children is quite high?
Challenges include: the logistical task of providing reproductive health services to women; informing them of their ability to limit their number of children and to space births over at least two years; low levels of literacy; the value husbands place on large families; and securing funding for family planning programs. The country is often hailed as an emerging economic power, yet 930 million people — three-quarters of India’s population — live on less than per day.
Countries such as Congo, Kenya, Madagascar, and Rwanda have identified rapid population growth as a problem and committed sufficient resources to address it.
Yet their fertility rates remain at 4.6 to 4.7 children per woman, and a future halt in fertility decline in those countries would surprise no one.
First, that it will continue to decline where it has begun to decline, and will begin to decline where it has not.
Second, that the decline will be smooth and uninterrupted.