Population Matters

Floods, droughts and a billion people in danger in Nile basin

Floods, droughts and a billion people in danger in Nile basin

Nile basinA crisis is quickly developing across one of the world’s great river basins, as a result of population pressures coupled with global warming. As water levels become more variable and less predictable, the risk of flooding and droughts will increase dramatically.

According to UN estimates, the population across the Nile river basin is projected to double by 2050, approaching one billion. The region is already under immense pressure from water scarcity.

Scarcity of fresh water resources is already a major concern for people in many parts of the world, with population growth magnifying the issue. This is especially true for countries across the Nile river basin, where many inhabitants live at the sustenance level and depend directly on the river ecosystems.

Nile basin

A newly-published study by academics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) projects that the river’s water levels will become increasingly unpredictable, resulting in either devastating floods or plaguing drought depending on the year. Growing variability in water levels is already taking place in the region. Between 2015 and 2016, many countries in the Nile basin experienced intense drought followed by widespread flooding.

Ethiopia, for instance, experienced one of the most serious climatic shocks in recorded history, with 10 million people facing successive crop failures, widespread livestock deaths, as well as severe water shortages and health risks. Around the same time, flooding in Sudan left thousands of houses destroyed, several villages submerged, and 100 people killed.

Climate change vulnerability

People living in low-lying coastal areas and river basins in developing countries are already recognised to be at great risk from the effects of climate change, including through a predicted rise in sea levels. Growing populations in these areas increase the number of people at risk.

At present, climate change is driven mainly by high carbon emissions from developed world countries.

For more information on challenges related to water and scarcity across the globe, visit our page here.

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Is India now bigger than China?

According to a Chinese academic, China’s official population figures are inaccurate – with the result that at an estimated 1.31bn  people, India has overtaken it as the world’s most populous country. While Yi Fuxian’s own figures have been questioned by other experts, the issue has highlighted the significance of these two countries to future population change and environmental impact.

The Washington Post reports that the  Chinese academic, currently working at a US university, says that China’s birth rate is lower tan official statistics claim, at 377.6 million new births in the last 25 years, rather than 465 million, as the government reports. As a result, its current population will be under 1.3 billion, rather than he 1.37bn currently estimated.

Although Chinese official statistics are notoriously unreliable,  other experts have challenged Yi’s claims, acknowledging that current figures may not be entirely accurate but saying that he has overstated his case.

Two giants

China flagWhatever the precise ranking, India and China are currently the world’s most populous countries by a large margin. India’s fertility rate (TFR*) has dropped by two-thirds since 1960 and at 2.4, is just below the global average and just above the “replacement rate” at which numbers of births and deaths eventually become equal. With a TFR of 1.6, China’s fertility is among the world’s lowest, although it appears to be climbing following abandonment of the coercive “one child policy” in 2015.

Low fertility rates (ie numbers of children per family) do not necessarily mean low population growth, however. Countries with large numbers of young people have proportionately more families, driving overall number of births up. India’s population is expected to grow by 350 million by 2050.

Environmental challenges

In addition to increasing populations, China and India are both becoming more affluent. As a result, their CO2 emissions per person are increasing, alongside the increasing number of people.

Both countries are signatories to the Paris climate agreement and are taking significant steps to reduce their overall CO2 emissions. Their large populations mean, however, that they join the USA in the top three contributors to global warming in the world.

China's per capita carbon emissions
China’s per capita carbon emissions
Graph: India's per capita CO2 emissions
India’s per capita CO2 emissions 1960-2013

*Total fertility rate is the standard measure of fertility used by demographers, statisticians and policymakers. It is the average number of children a woman of childbearing age would be expected to have if current fertility rates did not change during her childbearing years. It provides an indication of average family size. Birth rate – officially the total number of live births per 1,000 of a population in a year – is affected by the number of young adults in a population. The more of them there are in proportion to the overall population, the more women will be having children and the number of births increases.

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Report: Population key to controlling climate change

Drawdown book cover
Cover of the Drawdown book

Analysis undertaken for a comprehensive new plan to reverse global warming, Drawdown, has identified family planning and educating girls as among the top 10 workable solutions available today. Together, they would reduce CO2 emissions by 120 gigatons by 2050 — more than onshore and offshore wind power combined.

“Drawdown” is the point in time when greenhouse gas concentrations peak in the atmosphere and begin to go down on a year-to-year basis. The Drawdown project is an international effort, involving 70 research fellows from 22 countries and six continents. The nonprofit organisation is a coalition of scholars, scientists and advocates from across the globe that is modeling, and communicating about a collective array of substantive solutions to global warming, with the goal of reaching drawdown.

The report makes a simple case:

“Carbon footprints are a common topic. Addressing population—how many feet are leaving their tracks—remains controversial despite widespread agreement that greater numbers place more strain on the planet.

“Honoring the dignity of women and children through family planning is not about governments forcing the birth rate down (or up, through natalist policies). Nor is it about those in rich countries, where emissions are highest, telling people elsewhere to stop having children. When family planning focuses on healthcare provision and meeting women’s expressed needs, empowerment, equality, and well-being are the result; the benefits to the planet are side effects.”

About education for women and girls, it says:

“Education lays a foundation for vibrant lives for girls and women, their families, and their communities. It also is one of the most powerful levers available for avoiding emissions by curbing population growth.”

The project has evaluated and ranked 80 solutions, including plant-based diets, solar farms and electric vehicles.  Among the criteria used in evaluation were whether the solution is currently available and its economic viability.

Commonwealth of Nations flag
Flag of the Commonwealth of Nations

Drawdown has been appointed by the Secretary-General of the Commonwealth of Nations, Patricia Scotland, to collaborate with the Commonwealth on future research. Secretary Scotland has committed the Commonwealth to integrating Drawdown into the economic and ecologic portfolios of the fifty-two countries that comprise the Commonwealth.

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Scotland’s population growth to hit cities and country

The number of households in Scotland will grow by 14 per cent over the next 25 years, while the population will grow by seven percent, according to a report released this month by Scotland’s National Records office (NRS).

Growth will be strongest in the cities, with Aberdeen seeing its population grow by a fifth. However, the number of households in the Cairngorms National Park will grow by six per cent.

In Glasgow & Clyde Valley, households should rise by 12 per cent but population growth of just three per cent is expected. Greater growth is expected in Edinburgh and South-East Scotland, where households will increase by 22 per cent and the population by 14 per cent.

Scottish regional population projections 2017The disproportionate growth in households is due to smaller households and 24 percent of Scottish households will contain people living alone by 2039.


Urban areas are threatened with increased pressure on public services and especially housing, in light of the rapid growth in households. The Cairngorms are home to a number of wildlife species which could be threatened by increased development, including red squirrels and cuckoos.

Scottish population policy

Scotland has a lower fertility rate than the rest of the UK. The NRS estimates that in the next 10 years, natural increase (more births than deaths) will be responsible for 10 per cent of the population growth in Scotland, with the remaining 90 per cent due to net inward migration (57 per cent from overseas, 32 per cent from the remainder of the UK).

The Scottish Government seeks a growing population in Scotland. In a submission to a Scottish Government inquiry in 2016, Population Matters wrote

“The assumption that the only way to deal with the demographic change and maintaining a healthy economy in Scotland is by encouraging population growth must be challenged. An increasing population may temporarily increase GDP, but in the long term it means that resources are consumed at an even more unsustainable rate.”

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US ends funding for United Nations Population Fund

On Monday, the US declared it was cutting its funds to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) – an agency that promotes family planning in more than 150 countries – threatening the health and rights of millions of girls and women around the world, particularly those most vulnerable.

In its memo, the U.S. stated that the UNFPA supports coerced abortions and involuntary sterilisation in China and cited the Kemp-Kasten amendment. The amendment, which was first enacted in 1985 and used by several Republican presidents, prohibits foreign aid from going to an organisation that is involved in coercive abortion or involuntary sterilisation.

The UNFPA says these claims are erroneous and that while the UNFPA has a program in China, “all of its work promotes the rights of individuals and couples to make their own decisions, free of coercion or discrimination”.

“UNFPA does not fund or perform abortions or forced sterilisations anywhere in the world. Instead, the agency offers voluntary family planning to prevent unintended pregnancies which, in turn, empowers girls and women to pursue an education, earn an income, and live more prosperous lives” said U.N. Foundation President and CEO Kathy Calvin.

Some of the UNFPA programmes run in the world’s “most fragile” countries, including Iraq, South Sudan, Syria, Yemen and Somalia.

In 2016, with support from the United States, its fourth largest donor, UNFPA says that was able to:

  • Save the lives of 2,340 women from dying during pregnancy and childbirth;
  • Prevent 947,000 unintended pregnancies;
  • Ensure 1,251 fistula surgeries;
  • Prevent 295,000 unsafe abortions;
  • Help 3 million couples prevent unwanted pregnancy.

“The U.S. is one of the largest contributors to the UNFPA, and eliminating U.S. funds threatens the health and rights of millions of girls and women around the world, particularly those in crisis situations,” said U.N. Foundation President and CEO Kathy Calvin.

Population Matters 

Empowering people to determine the size of their families and giving them the means to do so helps to break the cycle of deprivation and powerlessness.

Population Matters is supporting a range of international efforts to defend family planning following the Trump administration’s ban on overseas aid for organisations providing abortion or information about it. Please join the campaign.

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Sydney hits 5 million as Australia continues to grow

Australa at nightAustralia’s two biggest cities – Melbourne and Sydney – account for more than half of the country’s population growth, new statistics for 2015-16 show. With Melbourne now its fastest growing city, sprawling suburbs of state capitals are Australia’s new boom towns

Demographer Mark McCrindle  outlined the scale and challenges of Australia’s population growth:

“For Sydney to grow – in less than a generation – from 1958 when it was two million, to now hit five is pretty phenomenal.

“Population growth is continually taking planners by surprise. We are sort of dealing with population growth we weren’t planning on. 

“Sydney is going to add a new Perth – two million people – to its population in the next 20 years. For Melbourne, [it’s] a 100,000 increase every single year … that sort of growth requires some significant infrastructure injection.”

No shortage of space but is Australia’s growth sustainable?

Australia’s population reached 24 million last year, with half of the annual growth driven by immigration (a lower proportion than in previous years). Its population is expected to hit 50m in 2086.

The largest single origin country of immigrants in Australia remains the UK, with over one million British-born people in the country.

While its population density is less than 1,000th that of Shanghai, Australia actually has the second highest per capita ecological footprint of any country (ecological footprint is a measure of how much natural resources are required to supply individuals needs and absorb the waste and emissions they produce). Australia is also the Earth’s driest continent and the effects of global warming threaten a water crisis by the end of the century, according to scientists.

Population Matters believes that a decent standard of life for all and a healthy, biodiverse environment can only be achieved if population and consumption are in line with natural resources. Find out more about population and why it matters.

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One step forward, two steps back in African economic development?

Despite significant progress in recent years, Malawi’s government is concerned that young Malawis will inherit only poverty as economic gains are neutralised by population growth. 

Malawi sees increase in teenage girl pregnancies

Despite success in bringing family planning services and improvements in maternal and child health, Malawi’s annual population growth of 3.32% remains greater than its rate of GDP (Gross Domestic Product) growth and threatens to derail economic progress.

In response to the country’s recent Demographic and Health Survey, Minister of Finance, Economic Planning and Development, Goodall Gondwe, said:

“The high population is exerting a lot of pressure on our economy. As a country we have made tremendous gains over the years but the impact is not reflected on our economy because the gains have been dissipated by population growth”

According to Malawi media, the Malawi government is urging people to “make less babies”.

Family planning and teen pregnancy

The demographic and health survey also found that about 29,500 women receive care for induced and spontaneous abortions in health facilities in Malawi each year, while teenage pregnancy is rising, with 30% of teenagers having given birth.

The most important factors contributing to unintended pregnancy and induced abortion identified by the survey, included inaccessibility of safe abortion services particularly for poor and young women, and lack of adequate family planning.

These services are under threat as a result of the US government’s reintroduction of the ‘global gag rule’, which cuts funding from any health project which provides or gives information about abortion.

Nigeria backs family planning

Africa’s most populous country, Nigeria, also recognises the crucial role family planning plays for its growth.

population growth in Nigeria

At a meeting on the implementation of the UN Population Fund’s (UNFPA) assisted-programmes held in Nigeria’s capital Abuja, the Nigerian government commended the UNFPA’s work on population and development.

It reaffirmed that it will continue to support the promotion of family planning, gender, sexual reproductive health and population and development in order to enhance its growth, according to an article in the Nigerian Tribune.

Mr Dasogot Dashe, the UNFPA Programme Analyst on Demography and Statistics, urged participants to focus on ageing population in order to reap the demographic dividends. The demographic dividend is the economic boost that occurs when the proportion of children in a population reduces, allowing more adults to enter the workforce and reducing numbers of dependents.

Despite these optimistic comments, however, Nigeria’s progress is threatened by massive population growth, with its current population on track to grow by 1,000% by the end of the century.

Population Matters believes that access to family planning services is fundamental to slowing and reversing unsustainable population growth. We support measures to secure equal gender participation in education, the economy and society. 

Please join the campaign to defend family planning.

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Pakistan’s flawed population census

On Wednesday 15 March, Pakistan launched its first census in 19 years amidst widespread concerns that it will be of little use. This year’s census will omit to collect vital information on current demographics. Fears are that this will impede the country’s ability to deal with its rapid population growth, and fuel existing crises like housing and water shortages. 

A census is designed to help a government assess the socio-economic health of a nation and better plan for the future and for the nation’s growing needs. It does this by gathering a range of demographic information. Yet this census will be no more than a headcount.

Pakistan’s population is currently estimated at around 197 million and it said to have been “exploding“.

The two most urgent problems tied to its fast population growth that the census could help the country deal with is its rapid urbanisation, currently the highest in south East Asia with a 3% annual growth, and migration.

“In the past few decades, millions of people have migrated to Pakistan from Afghanistan as well as Bangladesh. This has overburdened our cities and changed their demography,” Mazhar Abbas, a senior Pakistani journalist, told DW.

Yet the data omitted from the census deals precisely with migration and fertility. Without that data, it will not be possible to calculate Pakistan’s actual growth rate.

Family planning and development

The missing data is also essential for family planning says DKT Pakistan, an NGO raising awareness of family planning in Pakistan. The information provided would have helped map out areas where family planning is most needed and the scale of the services required, giving Pakistan a real chance to tackle population growth.

According to DW, experts are concerned that Pakistan’s inability to deal with its population growth will exacerbate problems it is already facing, such housing and water scarcity, and fuel existing political and military conflicts. It will also affect the provision of other services, such as education and energy. It is estimated that working age population will increase by 70 million in next 20 years posing a huge development challenge.

Why population matters

Population Matters campaigns for governments to integrate population projections into their planning and policies, and to promote smaller families. Find out more about population and our campaigns

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Spreading the word on population

Logo for BBC TV programme The Big QuestionsPopulation Matters has recently had considerable success in bringing the population concern message to new audiences in the media. Meanwhile, our growing social media following helps us reach hundreds of thousands of people online.

On Sunday, Population Matters board member Karin Kuhlemann made a strong case for population stabilisation when she took part in a discussion on the BBC television programme, The Big Questions. The item arose from the recent conference on biological extinction held at the Vatican and brought together advocates for population concern, representatives from the Catholic community and sceptics about the population case.

The Big Questions can be viewed here. The population discussion begins at 40 minutes. The programme will be available online until 2 April and can be viewed in the UK only.

In a vigorous debate, Karin eloquently outlined the multiple threats arising from population growth, including food insecurity and environmental damage. Journalist John Gibbons also spoke persuasively on the programme about the threats posed by population growth to climate and wildlife. Karin emphasised that the risk of enormous population growth is genuine but that we have the tools and ability to prevent that through choice.

Note: the beginning of the programme contains an interesting discussion on he provision of sex education in the UK, a subject on which we have long campaigned.

Reaching new audiences

The programme followed widespread coverage in major UK media outlets for Population Matters’ comments in response to statistics showing the UK’s population is likely to reach 70m by 2026 and that the proportion of elderly people will continue to grow. Our statements were featured in The MirrorThe Sun and The Mail, among other media outlets.

In addition to the traditional media, we use our highly successful Facebook and Twitter pages to reach new audiences.

Twitter logo

Facebook logoWith nearly 300,000 “likes”, our Facebook page has grown hugely in recent years. It is an excellent source of information and up-to-the-minute news on developments in population and the environment.

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Is the Pope heeding warnings about population?

Cattle and burning forestAccording to an unconfirmed report, Pope Francis has urged people to have fewer children in order to address environmental concerns. However, the Catholic Church’s opposition to artificial contraception remains in place.

The report emerges after patrons of Population Matters Sir Partha Dasgupta and Prof Paul Ehrlich warned a conference in Vatican City this week that the “richest array” of plant and animal life ever seen is disappearing from the Earth “in the blink of an eye” and that “humanity is busily making it worse”.

In the comprehensive, deeply researched and sobering paper they presented at a scientific workshop on Biological Extinction at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences this week, the two scientists wrote:

“the driving force of extinction, the ultimate cause of the current sixth mass extinction crisis is much too high a level of … consumption – produced by human numbers multiplied by too high a level of consumption among the rich.”

The paper concludes:

“The short-range solutions to the problem of preserving biodiversity … will all prove to no avail unless the basic drivers of extermination — continued population growth, policies seeking economic growth at any cost, over-consumption by the rich, and racial, gender, political, and economic inequity … are addressed.”

The ‘population bomb’
Population advocate Paul Ehrlich
Paul Ehrlich

Paul Ehrlich is one of the world’s most high profile population campaigners and wrote the hugely influential The Population Bomb in 1968. His attendance at the event provoked objections from some Catholics because of his powerful advocacy for family planning.

The Catholic Church opposes artificial contraception although it is used widely by Catholics and predominantly Catholic countries such as Italy and Portugal have some of the world’s lowest fertility rates.

At the end of the conference, a statement was issued which acknowledged the massive increase in human population but did not discuss the role of family size. According to the Mail Online, one delegate claimed the Pope “urged us to have fewer children to make the world more sustainable”. Pope Francis has expressed strong concerns about the environment and over-consumption in the past. There have been suggestions that he may have a more flexible stance on contraception than previous popes but the policy has not been changed.

Some Catholic scholars have challenged the Church’s policy, maintaining that in the 21st century, birth control is not just “permissible” but “morally obligatory”. They note the essential role of family planning, particularly in the developing world, in empowering women, preventing child and maternal death and helping to lift communities and nations out of poverty.

UPDATE: Following the conference, a statement was issued which acknowledged the massive increase in human population but did not discuss the role of family size.

Why population matters

Stabilising population and bringing it into balance with what the Earth can provide will help to address the critical challenges of the 21st century, including eliminating poverty, reducing conflict and moving from environmental crisis to a healthy planet that can sustain us all.

Find out more about population and Population Matters.

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