Tag Archives: population growth

How the world’s population jumped from 3 to 7 billion in my lifetime

Japheth Mati

When on 31 October 2011 the earth’s population clocked seven billion people, this happened to be only 12 years after we had celebrated the sixth billion. So I started to wonder where I was in the complex arithmetic, realising that while it had taken 123 years to change numbers from the first to the second billion, the increase from the fifth to the seven billion people had taken just 24 years. I started thinking how many billions I had in fact ‘seen’, and who in my foggy past might have existed before the clocking of the first billion. This short history is summarised in the accompanying table, which shows that whereas my predecessors counted in the first and second billion, in my short life I have been counted within six consecutive billions- from the second up to the seventh billion; and God willing, I might also spill to the eighth billion. In my lifetime, I have witnessed the earth’s population almost triple.

Table: Population growth from 1 to 7 billions 1804-2011

(Source: The State of World Population 2011)

Around the beginning of the first millennium the world’s population was about 300 million, and it would take more than 1,600 years for the world population to double to 600 million. The rapid growth of the world population is a recent phenomenon, which started around 1950, as a result of significant reductions in mortality thanks to emerging medical technologies. By the years 2000 the world population had reached an estimated 6.1 billion, which was nearly two-and-a-half times, the population in 1950. The highest global population growth rate (2.0 per cent) was recorded in the period1965-1970, in Kenya, reaching the high of 3.8% in 1979.

As Professor Babatunde Osotimehin, Executive Director, UNFPA states in the Foreword to the SOWP 2011, how we became so many, and how large a number our Earth can sustain may be important questions, “but perhaps not the right ones for our times”. “When we look only at the big number, we risk being overwhelmed and losing sight of new opportunities to make life better for everyone in the future”. Instead, we should be asking what we can do to make our world better, to transform our growing populations into forces for sustainability by empowering and removing barriers to equality between women and men, and in particular, what we can do “to unleash the creativity and potential of the largest youth cohort humanity has ever seen”

I have in a previous post asked Can we make the “youth bulge” a source of strength not a threat? Indeed, this can happen, with better planning and viable economic policies that mobilise the potential of every corner of this nation. Strengthening of institutions and equitable investment of resources can unleash a strong and better-educated workforce with fewer children to support and no elderly parents totally dependent on them. In such a scenario, the “youth bulge”, generated by our recent demographic history and fertility decline through effective fertility regulation measures, could transform to the driving force behind economic prosperity in future decades.


A commentary on population and development in Kenya

The theme of Kenya’s National Leaders’ Conference on Population and Development, November 15-17, 2010 is “managing population to achieve Kenya Vision 2030”. Vision 2030 is the national blueprint for long-term development which aims to transform Kenya into “a newly-industrialising, middle income country providing a high quality of life to all its citizens in a clean and secure environment”. The Vision is anchored on three key pillars: Economic; Social; and Political Governance. This conference comes in the wake of the release of the 2009 Population & Housing Census , in which Kenya’s population is estimated at 39 million, with the population growth rate calculated at 2.5 percent over the period 1999-2009. A lot of concern has been expressed on the revelation that Kenya’s population increased by about a million people annually over that period, and that the population is projected to reach 64 million by 2030.

Kenya’s population growth rate increased steadily from 2.5 percent in 1948, peaking at 3.8 percent in 1979, this being one of the highest growth rates ever recorded. In 1989 the population growth rate began to decline, to 3.4 percent and further down to 2.5 percent in 1999, a level that has been sustained to 2009. The current population growth rate (of 2.5 percent), is still considered to be high, and owing to the past growth rates the population is still youthful with nearly half being aged 18 years or below. This is what has been dubbed demographic momentum– a phenomenon of continued population increase despite reducing fertility rates, which is brought about by waves of large populations of young persons entering reproductive age in successive years. This may in part explain the addition of one million people annually to Kenya’s population, as referred to above.

From the above, it is indeed a disconcerting thought for family planning advocates; to realize that there is a limit as to what birth control per se can do to significantly curtail Kenya’s population increasing trend over several decades! Perhaps the attention should change to finding out how to take advantage of the population momentum to improve our economy, so as to provide a high quality of life to all Kenyans, as envisioned in Vision 2030. Nevertheless, family planning will continue to play a central role in measures taken to improve the economy.

Can Kenya make use of the demographic momentum; make it a source of strength, not a threat? This is exactly what the so-called Asian Tigers did. They were faced with a situation similar to Kenya’s- coming from decades of high fertility that had generated huge population momentum. With better planning and viable economic policies they were able to unleash a healthy and better-educated workforce with fewer children to support and no elderly parents totally dependent on them. It can happen here; with adoption of social, economic, and political policies that allow realisation of the growth potential of our youth across the country, Kenya’s large youthful population can become our boon not our bane. To that end, family planning will remain a key driver of Kenya’s sustainable economic growth now and in the foreseeable future.

The government statement that “critical investment will be required in family planning services, health and other social and economic sectors to improve the welfare of Kenyans” is welcome. However, it needs to be followed by a critical review of the factors that have interfered with the effectiveness of Kenya’s Family Planning Programme; there is need to ask ‘what went wrong? In my view, these factors fall in two broad categories: First, an uncertain environment for effective promotion of birth control measures (political commitment; gender equity; child survival, among others), and second, serious chronic institutional weaknesses that interfere with effectiveness of the family planning programme (coverage of FP services; commodity security; quality of services and care, among others). Hopefully, the Leaders’ Conference may address these issues.

Related link

Kenya’s Rapid Population Increase: Our bane, boon or both

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