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[Editorial] Seven billion humans

As Danica, one of the babies chosen by the United Nations to symbolize the 7 billionth person in the world, was crying at the bosom of her mother Camille in a maternity hospital in Manila, experts and government policy makers presented forecasts and countermeasures about the still fast-growing world population.

It was in 1999 that then U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan held an infant boy in Bosnia-Herzegovina in his arms to congratulate the 6 billionth birth to the world while at the same time issuing a global warning about a population explosion. Just as the world forgot about Adnan Nevic afterward, nations did little to stem the population growth that threatens the supplies of food, water, shelter and education.

This week, U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon said that the 7 billionth baby comes to “a world of contradiction ― plenty of food, but still a billion people going to bed hungry every night.” The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization predicted that food production would need to jump 70 percent to feed the world by 2050. With more than two babies born every second, the global population is forecast to reach 8 billion in 14 years and 10 billion by the end of the century.

The general gloom, however, is a little mitigated by experts’ explanation that for the first time ever, the global rate of population increase is slowing in many places ― even outside Europe and Japan. Seventy-five countries in the world show fertility rates below 2.0, well below the 2.2-2.3 considered optimal to hold the population steady. Low fertility rates are reported in Brazil and China, and while Iran’s 1.9 and the United Arab Emirates’ 1.8 are surprisingly low. Korea remains in the lowest group with 1.1 last year.

The Republic of Korea had 48,580,000 people in the Nov. 1, 2010 census, which showed a gain of 1.3 million from 47,280,000 in 2005. In five years, the aged group ― 65 years old or older ― has increased by 1.06 million from 4.37 million to 5.42 million. Korea has the world’s third-highest population density after Bangladesh and Taiwan (excluding city or small island states).

In many parts of the industrialized world, parallel worries rise: while continuing urbanization aggravates the problems of poverty, educational difficulties and general worsening of the quality of life, declining birth rates accompany the aging of society and the reduction of work force. To secure enough manpower for sustained economic growth, governments take measures to raise the fertility rate, but increased childbirths, which tend to concentrate in the poorer strata, cause long-term demographic and social problems.

Korea bears the brunt of the population contradiction. The nation needs to continue to emphasize maintaining the optimum level of population considering the limited natural resources and territorial space. But a fundamental review of population policies is necessary to provide effective measures tailored to Korean realities. The even distribution of population through balanced regional development, improvement of child care facilities, reduction of education costs, and expansion of old age employment are all essential. Better welfare is the best population policy, after all.