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Fear and optimism as world population poised to reach 8 billion – amid historic fertility slowdown

Fear and optimism as world population poised to reach 8 billion – amid historic fertility slowdown
A health worker takes care of newborn babies in the UNFPA-supported neonatal department of the Al Shaab Hospital in Aden, Yemen. © UNFPA/Ala’a Aldoly
  • 11 July 2022

UNITED NATIONS, New York – The United Nations announced today that the world’s population is expected to reach 8 billion on 15 November 2022  – a milestone for humanity – and in 2023 India is projected to become the most populous country, surpassing China. But perhaps the even bigger headline is that fertility rates are at a historic low: Two thirds of people are now living in a country or area with a lifetime fertility below the replacement rate of 2.1 births per woman.

These new data arrive at a time of dizzying uncertainty: the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has killed more than 6 million worldwide; a record-breaking 100 million people have been forcibly displaced by violence, persecution or conflict; climate change is ravaging the most marginalized; and pushback against women’s rights continues to threaten the lives, dignity, freedom and welfare of women and girls everywhere.

An elderly woman shows photographs.
Valentina, a 72-year-old Ukrainian refugee who fled her home during the war with Russia arrives in the Republic of Moldova in search of safety. A growing number of countries are facing the impacts and uncertainty of ageing populations: By 2050, people aged 60 and over are projected to make up more than 20 per cent of the global population. © UNFPA Moldova/Eduard Bîzgu

Yet the arrival of this milestone – 8 billion people sharing the planet at one time – is also cause for optimism. It is a mark of progress in medicine and health systems, a measure of improvements in education and development, a landmark in human survival. Moreover, declining levels of fertility indicate that many women and girls are increasingly able to exercise control over their own reproductive choices. 

Reactions to the news have been decidedly mixed.

“The world reaching this number will mean more science, innovation and discovery. This growth will spur more technologies and research,” said Anton Massouh, a 24-year-old engineer in Homs, Syria, who remains optimistic despite the destructive and drawn-out conflict in his home country. “In my opinion it’s wonderful.”

But Abdulrahman Al-Ward, a 26-year-old youth activist in Yemen, was more wary. His country, too, has been roiled by relentless war. “With the madness going on in the world, more people will only mean more suffering.”

A call for wiser investments

Initial responses about the projections and their potential impact came primarily from the Arab States region, where concerns over humanitarian disasters remain acute.

“Facing global crises, including climate change, degradation of natural resources, pandemics and wars, I believe that the future of our lives is under threat,” said Ibtihal Ait Layachi, a midwife at the Tetouan maternity hospital in Morocco.

“I think we are on the way to overpopulation, which is associated with great inequality in the distribution of resources and in the growth rate of the world,” she explained, although she acknowledged the challenges lower fertility rates will present: “There are countries where ageing is a real problem.”

Others were more circumspect, despite the hardships they’ve experienced and witnessed in their lives. Maimon Musfer, a 31-year-old trainer at a UNFPA-supported youth services centre in Taiz, Yemen, said the number carries both promise and peril. “Reaching 8 billion people means the world is full of human resources, who could make heaven on earth. But this needs wise investment of those resources, otherwise it will be hell without peace or coexistence.”

His colleague, 26-year-old Hind Al-Mujahed, said that humanity is capable of not only surviving but thriving – so long as leaders commit to the right policies. “We could avoid problems like food insecurity, unemployment, and so on, but only with solid investments in the population, so they can be productive and meet the world’s needs.”

Empowering women and girls

Several respondents called for empowering women and girls as a key strategy for building a better future. Mervat Ismail Al-Hijjah, in Homs, Syria, argued that in some parts of the world, child marriage and adolescent pregnancy are to blame for high fertility rates. “The most important reason for the population increase is early marriage of underage girls, without thinking or awareness,” she said.

In fact, a recent UNFPA study found that mothers who begin childbearing in adolescence often go on to have many more children, a reflection of their marginalization and lack of support. But when girls receive comprehensive sexuality education, quality health services, access to schooling and employment, they are able to exercise informed and affirmative choice over whether, when and with whom to become pregnant.

Two babies are held by their mothers.
Mothers and babies wait to be seen by a midwife at the Ntimaru hospital in Kehancha, Migori County, Kenya. © UNFPA/Luis Tato

The ability to make this choice freely is essential, said 27-year-old Lama Al-Rida, a case manager with a local charity in Deir-Ez-Zor, Syria. “Everybody should seek to create the family they want,” she said. “It’s a great achievement for humanity to reach 8 billion: It means we are on the right track.”

There is cause for optimism when women are empowered to chart their own paths, Solvana Hisham Tayyar, in Lattakia, Syria, added. “When a woman is educated, she is strong and not at the mercy of anyone.”

No matter the size of the world population, the respondents agreed that leaders and policymakers must remain committed to the rights of every individual. As Mr. Musfer, in Yemen, summarized: “Earth belongs to everyone.”

UNFPA Executive Director Dr. Natalia Kanem agreed: “People are the solution, not the problem. Numbers matter, but let’s count carefully. A resilient world of 8 billion, a world that upholds individual rights and choices, offers infinite possibilities – possibilities for people, societies and our shared planet to thrive and prosper."

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