Rising population poses global challenges
by Mai Hien
On October 31, the world's population reached 7 billion. This milestone gives rise to opportunities as well as great challenges.
Life expectancy wordwide has increased and the death rate has steadily declined as medical breakthroughs and improved access to sanitation and health care have saved millions of lives.
"Actions that we take now will determine whether we have a healthy, sustainable and prosperous future or one that is marked by inequalities, environmental decline and economic setbacks," said Bruce Campbell, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) representative in Viet Nam.
The growing population is putting enormous pressure on our planet. According to the UNFPA, with the current pace of growth, about 78 million more people are added to the world population each year. Most of them are from less developed countries, some of which already struggle to meet their people's needs.
As a result, the 7 billionth person was born in what UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon calls a "world of contradiction".
"There is plenty of food, but still a billion people go to bed hungry every night. Many people enjoy a luxurious lifestyle, but still many people are impoverished," Ban said during an interview with Time magazine.
The UN predicts India will overtake China as the world's most populous nation by 2025 when it will have almost 1.5 billion people. With the world population more than doubling during the last half century, experts have cast doubt about governments' ability in meeting demands on education and healthcare services. They also pointed out that over-crowded populations are considered as the main reason for poverty, environmental degradation and political instability.
To feed the 2 billion more mouths predicted by 2050, global food production will have to increase by 70 per cent, says the UN's Food and Agricultural Organisation. But is this possible given the ongoing effects of climate change? The growing global population has also resulted in rapid urbanisation, placing serious strains on towns and cities as migrants increasingly move from rural areas to urban centres.
The impact of a crowded population can be seen in Viet Nam, a country with 87 million people.
According to the results from the 2009 Census, on average Viet Nam's population increases by about 90,000 people each year. The country's average population density is 259 people per square kilometre — twice as much as that of Asia and China and six times as much as the world average.
At the recent seminar in Can Tho city, Bui Ba Bong, Deputy Minister for Agriculture and Rural Development, warned that the area under rice cultivation would be reduced by at least 300,000ha between 2020 and 2030. This raises the question of how can we ensure food security if the land under rice cultivation is shrinking while Viet Nam's population is forecast to rise from 87 million to 100 million by 2020?
According to Tran Van Chieán, Deputy Director of the General Office for Population and Family Planning, the current population density is already at an alarming rate, especially when compared with the country's existing natural resources.
"Population is linked with environment as well as politics and social issues," said Chien in an interview with Vnexpress online newspaper.
"The higher the birth-rate, the more exhausted the natural resources become. Thus, we have to face more challenges. Viet Nam is no exception."
Chien said populous towns and cities are facing difficulties in ensuring smooth transportation, adequate health services and schools as well as great difficulties in protecting the environment.
During French colonial times, Ha Noi had around 400,000 people, compared with the current number of 6 million or even higher during times when seasonal labourers come to the city. Despite this huge growth in population, development of infrastructure and transportation hasn't kept pace, said Chien.
According to Campbell from the UNFPA, although Viet Nam has made impressive progress towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals, wide disparities between urban and rural areas, especially ethnic minority people, still exist.
He predicts that Viet Nam faces challenges in improving the quality of education and human resource development as the literacy rate is rather low among ethnic Thai, Khmer, and Hmong groups compared to the ethnic Kinh majority and the school dropout rate of the population aged 5-18 years in southern provinces is high.
The country is undergoing a transition towards a period of "demographic bonus", meaning that there will be two or more persons of working age for every person of dependent age.
The demographic dividend offers Viet Nam a golden opportunity to use this abundant and young labour force for the next phase of economic growth, he said.
However , the "bonus" could also pose employment and social security challenges in the future unless Viet Nam's labour force is provided with quality education, training and job opportunities.
Campbell urged Viet Nam to prepare itself for the ageing of its population, as this demographic shift will be much shorter than the trend in many countries with higher development levels. For example, it took 85 years in Sweden while this same trend is projected to take only 20 years in Viet Nam.
A gender imbalance is also a big challenge for Viet Nam. In recent years, the Sex Ratio at Birth increased to 110.5 boys per 100 girls. It was attributed to a strong preference for sons and increasing access to sex-selection technology that has allowed couples to pursue their desire for sons. This could lead to a scarcity of women and increases in sex trafficking and marriage migration.
Campbell proposes that the country pay more attention to reproductive health and rights to offset a rapidly growing population.
"In countries that strives to ensure every child is wanted and every childbirth is safe, we see a reduction in total fertility, as well as smaller and stronger families," he says.
Challenges posed by the growing population are mounting in Viet Nam, and our future depends on the choices that we make now.
As Campbell said: "Young people are our future. They are our present, too. It is today, and not tomorrow, when we must invest in young people and include them in solving the great challenges of our times." — VNS