In The News

7 Billion and Counting

November 2, 2011

According to the United Nations, a baby born this week became the world’s 7 billionth person. As four babies are born somewhere around the world each second, no one knows for sure exactly which baby was the 7 billionth, or where he or she was born. However, it is probable this person was born somewhere in Asia, where 60 percent of the global population resides.

India Street Scene

It's estimated the world's population will reach 9 billion by 2045. In 2025, India is expected to overtake China as the world's most populous nation. Photo by Karl Grobl.

Of the 10 nations with the largest populations, six are in Asia – China, India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Japan. Depending on how fertility rates change in the coming decades, demographers estimate that the world’s population will reach 9 billion by 2045. And, according to UN projections, in 2025, India, with 1.46 billion people, will have overtaken China, with 1.39 billion, as the world’s most populous nation.

Adding 1 billion people over the past 12 years to the world population is a staggering addition. The idea that 2 billion more people will inhabit the earth in less than 35 years is stupefying to imagine. Although half of humanity currently lives in countries with stable and declining populations, 95 percent of world population growth is occurring in developing nations; most of whom will be born poor with parents struggling to support themselves. Approximately 1.4 billion people live on less than $1.25 per day. Almost one billion go to bed hungry every night and lack access to safe drinking water. Over one-third of the world’s population (2.5 billion) lack basic sanitation. Fifty seven percent of these people live in Asia. This lack of basic needs disproportionately harms women (60 percent) who go hungry and spend collectively more than 200 million hours a day gathering water from distant sources.

Increase in global population is putting great stress on land, food, water, and energy resources. China has 19 percent of the world’s population, but only about 7 percent of the world’s water resources. According to the World Food Programme, 35 percent of India’s population (more than 400 million) is considered to be food insecure. The World Bank projects Pakistan’s population to reach 335 million by the year 2050, which would exceed the country’s available water resources unless radical, costly improvements in infrastructure, conservation, and efficiency are made.

Given Asia’s stellar economic growth of the past three decades, more people with more income means that production and consumption of energy will continue to rise significantly. The world’s energy needs are projected to rise by 50 percent in 2025, and half of this consumption will come from China and India. Of the 121 million barrels of oil expected to be consumed each day in 2025, 60 percent will be consumed by the United States, China, India, and the rest of Asia. Consequently, global economic growth, and the improved standard of living it offers, means that resources are being consumed at record levels. However, the consumption of resources now enjoyed in the wealthiest nations will be difficult to sustain worldwide.

With one in seven people lacking access to proper nutrition and drinkable water, providing people with proper housing and better education will be one of the world’s greatest challenges in the 21st century. Moreover, given the increased social disparity and poverty in both developed and developing nations, including the United States as evidenced by the Occupy Wall Street Movement, will we witness the world’s poor and middle class take a bigger and stronger stand in demanding better governance and greater enforcement against endemic political corruption and corporate greed?

Earlier this year, Anna Hazare spearheaded an anti-corruption campaign in India, and Occupy Wall Street style protests have taken place recently in Korea, Hong Kong, Japan, Taiwan, and Indonesia; the latter protest leading to the closing of one of the world’s largest gold and copper mines as miners, employed by the U.S.-based Freeport-McMoRan Company, demanded higher wages.

Providing for 7 billion people and perhaps 10 billion by the end of the 21st century will be an enormous challenge. But demographers believe peak growth has already passed, meaning that the world’s population will not intensify at a greater rate. That is good news, but the quality of life provided by good governance, economic reform, and social justice by the world’s governments will ultimately determine what kind of security and economic prosperity Asians, Americans, and others around the globe will have in the decades to come.

John J. Brandon is The Asia Foundation’s director of the Regional Cooperation Program in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at jbrandon@asiafound-dc.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation. 

Write a comment:

* Required

Comments are moderated. Please be polite and on-topic.

 characters available