7 Billion Human Beings in 2011
Dr R Neerunjun Gopee
From one billion in 1810 the world’s population has increased to seven billion today: in fact, according to the United Nations agency for population, the UNFPA, the seven billionth human being is expected to be born in October 2011. All these people need to be clothed, fed, lodged and educated. This is a huge challenge for mankind, and as we look around the world we can see that there are equally huge disparities in the standards of living of people. They are present in all continents, within regions and even within countries, suggesting that there are several complex factors at play that produce such a situation. All of them, for example climatic changes, are not within our direct control.
UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund, was set up as ‘an international development agency that promotes the right of every woman, man and child to enjoy a life of health and equal opportunity. UNFPA supports countries in using population data for policies and programmes to reduce poverty and to ensure that every pregnancy is wanted, every birth is safe, every young person is free of HIV, and every girl and woman is treated with dignity and respect.’ These are worthy goals to achieve, but may remain an ideal if global commitments that are agreed upon by countries are not followed through at national level.
Hence the need to constantly and regularly create awareness about the issues involved, and World Population Day is observed on 11 July every year since 1987 for that purpose amongst others. Besides the goals of the UNFPA stated above, one of the major concerns control measures to reduce the growth rate and increase of populations, on the grounds that a high level of both may cause a setback to the socio-economic development of a country, as it would put a strain on the resources of a country making it unable to cope. In Mauritius this was probably the case in the late 1950s/1960s, when the island was poor and dependent on the monocrop sugar for its survival. The Titmuss-Meade report created a greater scare still, because there was a Malthusian forecast of Mauritius becoming a basket case, since we would not be able to cater for our population that would reach nearly three million within a couple of decades if the then rate of population growth continued.
A vigorous family planning programme was adopted as a method of birth control and eventually population control, and we have been so successful on this front that in the wake of the second wave of industrialization wave in the 1980s, we ran short of workers and had to import foreign labour. So far, we have been successful in averting the crisis forecasted by Titmuss-Meade, but given certain worrying signs – for example, the current water shortage that we are facing – we certainly have to take a more holistic approach to our future development so that it is not thwarted by our own greed and lack of long-term vision.
Currently, the Mauritian population stands at just under 1.3 million, compared to that of Singapore which is just over 5 million. Since Mauritius is about three times the size of Singapore, theoretically it could have about three times the latter’s population too, that is nearly 15 million! In fact the population density of Singapore is about ten times that of Mauritius, at nearly 6600 per square kilometres and along with Singapore, Mauritius is considered to be one of the top ten most populous countries in the world. How has Singapore managed to sustain this level of population may have lessons for not only Mauritius but perhaps for the whole world too for all we know!
What is clear though is that, as mentioned earlier, there are several factors at play in allowing any given country to handle its increasing population, among which contraception, better education, consumption patterns, financial resources, and political maturity and vision have a major role. In spite of all this, however, and the greater ability of human beings to manage their resources than animals left to interact with nature without being able to manipulate it as humans can, there are still environmental limits that we will eventually face. Pressure on the environment from a swelling population will no doubt catch up with us, meaning that the Earth can only feed so many, and thus the rationale and all the efforts at containing the growth of population.
This implies that it is still important to press for birth and population control measures, especially in the poorer countries with few resources or limited capacity to manage those that they may possess. They are the ones where high fertility rates and lack of access to contraception, along with inadequate sexual and reproductive health services, tend to keep them poor and lag behind in development. Fortunately in Mauritius we have gone very far towards achieving the UNFPA goals, what with our successful family planning programme, the free access to high quality health care including sexual and reproductive health, our forward-looking legislation on HIV-AIDS, free education up to tertiary level, and the numerous social and economic measures that have been implemented over the years.
As we face the future, we must make sure that we do not lose out on what we have already achieved — by our reckless ways at both individual and collective levels, and instead continue on a clear-cut path of development consistent with the best standards in the world, based on which we must elaborate a model of development customized to our specificities. That can be the only sane way forwards, and this is the message that must be hammered into everybody’s consciousness – from the deciders to the people at large — so that they don’t take things for granted, become complacent, and expect others to do what we should be doing for ourselves. A good dose of national self-esteem and confidence in our own capacity to manage our own affairs is essential, in my view, for we certainly have much of the wherewithal in this country to ‘do our own things,’ as it were. In this globalised world, Mauritian professionals have access to networks which they can tap to enhance the quality of services and hence the lives of their fellow citizens. Everything must be done to create the conducive environment that facilitate the work of, and encourage professionals to give their best. This is the only, and sure road to true progress.