MANILA, Philippines — Sometime Sunday, a baby was born, and the world’s population reached seven billion. The birth came a day ahead of what the United Nations has proclaimed as The Day of 7 Billion.
It as much a milestone in human history as it is a worldwide cause for deep concern.
Think about it: Humankind didn’t hit the 1 billionth threshold until the 19th century. But barely a hundred years later, we were 2 billion strong. Our numbers have since been growing by giant, exponential leaps.
By 2100, Earth will be welcoming its 10 billionth living citizen.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon views the arrival of the seven-billionth baby with trepidation. In a message marking World Population Day last July, Ban said the baby will be “born into our world of complexity and contradiction.”
“We have enough food for everyone, yet nearly a billion go hungry. We have the means to eradicate many diseases, yet they continue to spread.
We have the gift of a rich natural environment, yet it remains subject to daily assault and exploitation. All people of conscience dream of peace, yet too much of the world is in conflict and steeped in armaments,” he said.
Such a world awaits the baby of Mary Rose Castin. The 21-year-old midwife was at the Dr. Jose Fabella Memorial Hospital in Manila last week for her prenatal. She is due to give birth, to a girl, early November.
“Ganoon na pala kadami (I didn’t realize there were so many people),” Mary Rose exclaimed when told that the world’s population was approaching seven billion.
The figures are indeed mind-boggling. Every day, 382,000 babies are born all over the world. Most of the births are in countries already struggling to feed a growing number of hungry mouths.
In the UN World Population Fund’s (UNFPA) list of the world’s most populous countries, the Philippines ranks 12th. That means one in every 73 persons on the planet live here.
A mere 50 years ago, the Philippines’ population stood at 27.1 million. Today we are approaching 95 million. That’s a 250 percent jump.
It is a young population – 54 percent are not yet 25 years old.
The world’s population is just as young. A quarter of humanity are aged 10 to 24.
To Ugochi Daniels, the UNFPA’s country representative in the Philippines, “the challenge is responding to the needs of these young people by providing them with life skills, including proper information about their sexuality, that will allow them to better plan their lives and contribute to nation-building.”
Taking care of the next generations is daunting enough. But an even bigger challenge is stabilizing their numbers so they don’t outstrip economic growth.
“We can’t stop the growth of our numbers in any acceptable way immediately,” the Guardian Environment Network observed. “But we can put in place conditions that will support an early end to growth, possibly making this year’s the last billion-population day we ever mark.
We can elevate the autonomy of women to make life-changing decisions for themselves. We can lower birth rates by assuring that women become pregnant only when they themselves decide to bear a child.”
To the UNFPA, child-bearing women like Mary Rose hold the key to stabilizing the global population.
“Educating and empowering girls and women allow them to have fewer children than their mothers and grandmothers did, and they choose this path whenever and wherever they can. We must consistently involve boys and men, for they are the critical partners we require for health and development,” Daniels said.
Formidable cultural, social and religious barriers stand in the way of women’s rights, and those barriers must be taken down. “Women must be able to make their own decisions free from fear of coercion or pressure from partners, family, and society,” notes the Guardian Environment Network. “They must not depend on prolific motherhood for social approval and self-esteem. And they must have easy access to a range of safe, effective, and affordable contraceptive methods and the information and counseling needed to use them.”
Among many families in rural Philippines, a son is still the preferred offspring because of his value as a future farmhand or fisherman. Daughters are relegated to menial household work and are soon married off.
Women are still hostages to their spouses’ sexual desire and given no chance to space their pregnancies.
And the Catholic Church has been relentless in crusading against the reproductive health bill, the lynchpin of the government’s population policy.
The need to put the game plan into play cannot wait. The Philippine Center for Population and Development (PCPD) warns of the impact of too many people on the environment, food supply, housing and health.
“We co-exist with populations of flora and fauna, and it is necessary to maintain a balanced and healthy environment where all species can thrive. With the impacts of global warming and climate change becoming more prominent in the last decade or so, human populations must learn to adapt accordingly,” the PCPD pointed out.
Sheltering the country’s millions will also be a major undertaking. “Large populations necessarily require more housing, especially in areas of economic growth. But with high market values and uneven economic development, this leads to issues of inadequate housing and informal settling,” it said.
Food supply will be a critical factor. “Population size is directly proportionate to food consumption, and it is imperative that a population’s food requirements are met, whether by agricultural production or importation from other countries,” the PCPD said.
Health will also be a paramount consideration. “Population is driven by fertility and mortality, two processes that are directly influenced by health. Poorer families have more children.
This translates to a high infant mortality rate and, for those who survive the early years, nutritionally-deficient children. Key health needs include child immunization and health care, nutrition, sanitation and hygiene, and family planning.”
To not act now will make the problems harder to overcome later.
“We now have unprecedented capacity to share information and ideas, and engage communities across the globe to solve common problems.
Reducing inequities and improving living standards for people alive today – as well as for generations to follow – will require new ways of thinking and unparalleled global cooperation. The moment to act is now,” said UNFPA Executive Director Babatunde Osotimehin.
By the time Mary Rose’s daughter is 19, another billion people will be on the planet. The world that her generation will inherit will be shaped by what we do, or not do, today.