World population to top 6 billion

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ON 12 OCTOBER this year - give or take a week - the human population of Earth will reach six billion. It has risen by a billion in just a dozen years, and almost quadrupled during the 20th century.

The data was presented at a conference yesterday in The Hague as delegates from 180 nations gathered in the Netherlands for the United Nations Hague Forum to debate how to slow the rising tide of human numbers which is still threatening disaster across much of the globe.

Earth has never been so demographically divided. At one extreme, wealthy Western nations where fertility has been falling worry about the strains on their economies imposed by a fast-growing bulge of elderly, retired people. A group of Eastern European nations and Russia have seen a dramatic decline in birth rates; if the trend continues their populations will fall fast.

At the other extreme is a clutch of developing nations which already rely on food imports and seem entrapped by a combination of poverty and high population growth and density.

Lacking resources, and with nearly all their fertile land in use, the prospects for places such as Bangladesh, Pakistan, Egypt and Haiti appear bleak.

Furthermore, an endless cycle of wars in developing countries is hurting women and drowning out the message that family planning brings social benefits, the conference was told.

"It is pointless to talk about family-planning issues or reproductive health when women are in situations of conflict and genocide," said Nana Rawlings, the wife of Ghana's President, Jerry Rawlings. Goals, such as universal access to reproductive health services by 2015, were meaningless when women had to struggle to survive, she argued in a keynote speech.

Globally, the growth in human numbers is slowing. Even so, the population will reach 8.9 billion in 2050, according to the latest forecast of the UN Population Division. And it will not level off until around 2200, by which time there will be nearly 11 billion people alive.

The slowdown is happening because women in more and more countries are able to have fewer children, and are choosing to do so. There is a web of causes - higher standards of living, greater access to contraception, changing attitudes and declining infant mortality which gives mothers more reason to believe their babies will survive.

But big families and overpopulation still stunt hundreds of millions of lives across the world. The Hague Forum, which brings together 1,500 delegates from governments, charities, campaigning groups and academia, is trying to reach agreement on what more needs to be done. Hilary Clinton, the wife of the United States President, will speak there today on her way back to Washington from King Hussein's funeral in Jordan.

"Before the dawn of the next millennium, the six billionth human inhabitant of this planet will be born," the Dutch Health Minister, Els Borst-Eilers, said in an opening speech. "The crucial question is to what extent that child will be able to live a dignified, productive and happy life."

The forum is part of the follow up to a huge UN Population Conference held in Cairo five years ago, and a prelude to a larger follow-up conference next month which ministers will attend. An overwhelming majority of the world's nations agreed on a 20-year plan of action to spread family planning and boost women's health, education and rights - the keys to reducing high fertility rates. The aim was for universal access to affordable reproductive health services by 2015.

Since then, there has been progress, but many pressure groups and delegates from developing countries gathering in The Hague were complaining that most wealthy Western nations had not fulfilled the commitments they made in Cairo.

In signing up to that action plan, nations agreed that the developing and former Communist countries should be spending $17 bn (pounds 10.7bn) on meeting their commitments by 2000, and $21.7 bn by 2015. Wealthy, developed countries should meet one-third of this cost, in the form of aid and loans on easy terms.

But, according to Population Action International, an independent United States-based pressure group, the industrialised nations are now contributing less than half their share. Campaigner Sally Ethelston singled out France and Italy for particular criticism. The Scandinavian nations and the Netherlands had met their commitments, while the US, Britain, Japan and Germany were lagging behind.

t The West's official aid for the world's poorest countries has fallen to the lowest level in a decade, new figures revealed yesterday. And as a proportion of rich countries' income, the figures have not been smaller since records began nearly 40 years ago. An Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development report showed aid in 1997 was $49.6bn (around pounds 30bn) against $57.9bn in 1996.