by Hugh McCullom
Almost forgotten — some environmentalists say deliberately — in the mountains of words emanating from the Brazil Earth Summit last month was the most serious ecological threat of all — the massive growth of the world’s population.

Population expert Nafik Sadik, executive director of the United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA), says the growth of the world’s population and the attendant consumption of dwindling resources “presents the most serious threat since the human species evolved, an ecological catastrophe that is the new nightmare of the 90s.”

The world’s population is growing at about 97 million-a-year and will likely exceed 10 billion by 2050, double its present level. The UNFPA’s first long-range projection in 10 years is called A world in balance “, It makes frightening reading.

“As human numbers increase, mortality levels will start to rise, and populations will not be able to sustain themselves. But, is this the way we want to see population eventually levelling out — by mass die-offs of those without enough basic resources to survive?”

At Rio de Janeiro last month, immense pressures from the Vatican, right-wing Christian churches and fundamentalist Islamic movements were able to reduce population references to a few bland statements. A major row between Pope John Paul II and Britain’s Archbishop of Canterbury emerged when the head of the world-wide Anglican Communion said the Roman Catholic ban on birth control “was beyond comprehension.”

The population growth has, of course, profound implications for southern Africa where the yearly growth of just under 3.5 percent is the highest in the world. This ranges from Zambia’s high of 3.8 percent a low of2.7 percent in Angola and Mozambique.

The UNFPA report, the most comprehensive ever done, emphasizes the empowerment of women, the need for birth control allied with basic poverty alleviation, education and health care if the crisis is to be averted.

In 1987, the late Sally Mugabe, wife of Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe. Expressed much the same concern. Writing in Popline. The publication of the World Population News Service. She said:

“For a [Zimbabwean] woman. bearing and rearing children is the primary source of status in the family and the community. The larger the number of children a woman has, the higher the status she enjoys.”

This cultural concern has been echoed throughout the region. Planned Parenthood groups note that when women’s choices in southern Africa are severely limited – where for example women are discouraged or unable to work outside the home – children often represent her only source of power.

Population researchers assert that the traditionally low status of women pushes them into early marriage and frequent child-bearing.

“If society impedes other avenues of power such as pursuit of economic activity. then women will compensate by having large numbers of children.” says a World Bank report.

Population growth is already having a massive environmental impact in an area already severely damaged by drought. UNFPA statistics blame population growth for 79 percent of deforestation, 72 percent of farm expansion and 60 percent of the growth of livestock.

Population growth of the kind facing sub-Saharan Africa places unbearable stresses on the renewable resources of land, water and food creating conditions of perennial drought. Sixty years from now. The average person in southern Africa (including South Africa) will be reduced to just 0.11 hectares of land.

Sadik’s report has some apocalyptic predictions about the impact of exploding populations combined with global warming (as much as five degrees in 50 years} on the entire planet.

“This is a crisis the privileged few in the North will not be able to ignore. I see the march of millions, a poverty vacuum sucking people from the South to the North. You cannot close borders to the determined. A march on the U.S. and Europe is not beyond the realm of possibility.

Although there are major controversies, especially within religious circles, about the relationship between population growth and increased poverty, the UNFPA believe the one leads to the other.

In southern Africa, where population growth far exceeds economic growth, poverty cannot be alleviated; thought human centred development. That, says Sadik, means elevating the status of women. She says the “issue of women is paramount. Educated women have an opportunity to earn income, raise the status in the family and general community and to make decisions for themselves about family planning.”

She was highly tactical of the Vatican for demanding that references to family planning be removed from the Earth Summit declaration.

Despite this ringing endorsement of family planning other experts are less optimistic about the short-term future. Southern Africa’s growth rate is the highest per capita in the world. Only Zimbabwe and Botswana have been able to implement anything like the necessary population policies required. Due to a host of inter-related problems — scarce financing and limited administrative capacity, widespread poverty and illiteracy. Poor health delivery systems, low social status of women and war and political instability.

The population of the continent increased in the last 10 years from 485 million in 1981 to more than 650 million and is expected to exceed 800 million by the end of this century. despite war, the AIDS epidemic and other “inhuman” methods of population control.

Half of the southern Africa’s population is under 16. In another 10 years these women and men will be in their productive prime but the fragile economies cannot now absorb anything like the number of people roaming the streets of burgeoning cities looking for work.

It is like a time bomb and nowhere is that more obvious than the cities which are mushrooming in size, eating squalid, over-crowded, unhealthy and aime-riddled environments.

The urban problem is a recent one. For example, Zambia, the most urbanized country in the region, saw its cities grow from 23 percent of the population in 1965 to nearly 60 percent today. Botswana, at independence in 1966 had only four percent of people living in cities, today it is 25 percent and the process seems unstoppable. The same applies across the region.

Some argue that this is a natural phenomenon resulting from colonialism when most Africans were not allowed to live in cities or were forced into townships with infrastructures too small to handle today’s population. Now, with free movement from rural to urban, young men and women leave the traditional ands for the city looking for work and education opportunities.

Most governments pursue policies that favour urban areas like trying to establish capital intensive
Industries near cities, providing food subsidies to urban dwellers and attracting people who want to leave the countryside for the “bright lights.”

The current drought ravaging the entire region has also driven thousands upon thousands of rural people to cities in search of relatives who have access to such basics as water and food. This influx stretches housing, health, education, sanitation and water supplies to the breaking point, resulting in disease and crime.

Salim Ahmed Salim, secretary-general of the Organization of African Unity {OAU) says Africa has “no option but to pursue population policies which ensure a balance between population growth and socioeconomic development.”

How best to do that is the question over-populated nations must grapple with. Some UNFPA recommendations are already being implemented where possible: Population planning units within
government; more research into the impacts of population increases and training of specialists; more support for women’s programmes so that through education they can decide on family planning and birth-spacing; involvement of lay health workers, traditional healers and birth attendants in rural areas; increased donor aid for family planning; and greater understanding and programmes to cope with urbanization.

Angola: Population. 10.02 million; growth rate, 2.7 percent; fertility rate, 6.4 births per woman. Due to the extreme war conditions until last year, population control has not been a government priority and information on family planning is limited.

Botswana: Population, 1.3 million; growth rate, 3.7 percent; fertility rate, 5 births per woman. Urbanization has been rapid. Botswana, along with Zimbabwe, has become one of the leaders in African family planning. Thirty-two percent of women of child-bearing age now use modem contraceptives. There is widespread female education and health sc1Vice coverage is excellent.

Lesotho: Population, 1.75 million. Growth rate. 2.8 percent; fertility rate, 5.8 births per woman. Lesotho’s climate is beneficial to health and the quality of health delivery has improved. Family planning is uneven since many hospitals are church-administered. Education is below average and the role of women traditionally given over to rearing large families.

Mozambique: Population, 15.6 million; growth rate, 2.7 percent; fertility rate, 6.4 births per woman. The 17-year war in Mozambique has destroyed many rural health clinics leaving it with one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world at 159 per thousand live births, explaining its lower growth rate. Family planning has been largely disrupted by the war.

Namibia: Population, 1.78 million; growth rate, 3.2 percent; fertility rate, 6.1 births per woman. More than SO percent of the population is under 16 and the largest concentration of people is in the north. Under its apartheid rule, South Africa provided a two-tier racially divided health system which developed sophisticated family planning education for the minority whites and very little for the majority blacks. The new government is committed to improving the status of women and their education, including family planning methods.

Swaziland: Population, 790,000; growth rate, 3.4 percent; fertility rate, 6.5 births per woman. Health conditions are poor compared with several other countries in the rest of the region and infant mortality is high. Traditional attitudes towards women serve to keep population growth rates high.

Tanzania: Population. 27.3 million; growth rate, 3.7 percent; fertility rate, 7.1 births per woman. Child mortality is much lower than the average for sub-Saharan Africa and for many years basic services in Tanzania were good. More recently poverty has grown and, with it. less available information for family planning and educating women.

Zambia: Population, 8.5 million; growth rate, 3.8 percent; fertility rate. 7.2 births per woman. This country has the highest growth rate in southern Africa and is the most highly urbanized. Health and education services have deteriorated in recent years due to a faltering economy. Major cutbacks in health and education have seriously affected family planning programmes.

Zimbabwe: Population, 10 million; growth rate, 3.2 percent; fertility rate, 5.7 births per woman. Zimbabwe has one of the best family planning programmes in Africa with 36 percent of women of childbearing age using modem contraceptive methods. Health administration and infrastructure is good and the government has a strong commitment to family planning and reducing population growth.

(Data based on 1991 UN statistics.)

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