New U.N. forecasts on world population always attract attention. Larger populations, while carrying benefits, also penalize societies. In sub-Saharan Africa, sparse population density and relatively low urbanization suggests that more people can deliver benefits, especially economic benefits, by creating larger markets and greater effeciencies due to rising human densities.
Striking the balance, however, remains difficult, and extrapolating from present population growth can yield scary forecasts. In the most startling single piece of data in the entire new U.N. report is the number 730 million, which refers to the total amount of people to be living in Nigeria in 2100. Is it really possible for Nigeria’s population to rise, even in 90 years, from today’s estimated 162 million to a breathtaking 730 million, or an incredible 7.3 percent of the total human population, which the U.N. estimates will be 10.1 billion in 2100? Given the daily scramble in Nigeria, an observer could be forgiven, after all, for wondering how the country can support even a million more people, no less than 100 million or even an additional 500 million.
These are not sloppy projections either. They come from the highly-respected United Nations population division, which has a track record of fairly accurate forecasts going back to the 1950s. In the new report, the division also raised its forecast for the year 2050, estimating that the world would likely have 9.3 billion people then, an increase of 156 million over the previous estimate for that year, published in 2008.
Why so many Nigerians? Well, the African population, covering the entire continent, is under this forecast is expected to more than triple in this century, rising from today’s one billion to 3.6 billion. How can so many more people survive on a continent where the threat of climate change and resource depletion has some dour observers predicting a Malthusian doom even for the “small” population inhabiting the continent today?
The U.N. report doesn’t explain. The task of population agency is simply to forecast numbers, drawing on accepted practices. Still, any report that predicts the population of poor, and poorly endowed Malawi, will reach 129 million 90 years from now (from a mere 15 million today) raises uncomfortable questions that demand, if not a defiitive answer, then at least some serious reflection.
Even without the gargantuan numbers forecast by the U.N., Nigeria, Malawi and other of Africa’s more densely-packed countries are experiencing a Darwinian struggle for resources and space that nearly seems out of the pages of science-fiction novel. To be sure, improved medical care and rising incomes for many Africans means that quality of life, despite the resource squeeze, has risen. But for how much longer? The U.N. report provides a useful reminder that African governments, and civil society organizations, should do more to address family planning and population growth.
While demographic “momentum” is hard to alter, Africans need not resign themselves to a world where 730 million people consider Nigeria to be home. I’m married to a Nigerian, and a fan of the entire nationality. Yet I know well, from my own visits to Nigeria, we should be mindful of the old adage: beware of having too much of a good thing!