The Changing Distribution of World Population

  • by Joseph Chamie (new york)
  • Inter Press Service
  • Joseph Chamie, a former director of the United Nations Population Division, is currently an independent consulting demographer

The proportion of world population living in more developed regions is half its 1950 level, 16 versus 32 percent, and is expected to decline further to 13 percent by 2050. This transition is the result of substantial differences in the rates of population growth among the major regions of the world.

The relative demographic standing of Europe's population has changed substantially during the recent past, falling from 22 percent of world population in 1950 to 10 percent today and projected to decline further to 7 percent by midcentury. In the opposite direction, Africa's population has nearly doubled its share of world population during this period, increasing from 9 percent in 1950 to 17 percent in 2020.

As the sizable differences in the demographic growth rates of those two continents are expected to persist well into the future, Africa's population is expected to be more than triple the size of Europe's population by midcentury. And by the close of the 21st century, Africa's population is projected to be nearly seven times as large as Europe's population, 4.3 billion versus 0.63 billion, respectively.

Differing rates of demographic growth have also resulted in significant changes in the ranking of countries by population size. Among the top ten largest populations, for example, the number of more developed countries has decreased from six in 1950 to two today and is expected to decline to one country, the United States, by 2050 (Table 1).

Again, African countries, which were not among the top ten largest populations in 1950, have experienced the most relative gains in demographic ranking during the recent past. Consequently, by 2050 three African countries, Nigeria, Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, are expected to be among the world's top ten largest populations.

Another momentous change in the distribution of the world's population is its rural/urban composition. During the past seven decades a literal revolution in urban living has occurred worldwide. The proportion of world population residing in urban areas has increased from a minority of 30 percent in 1950 to a majority of 56 percent today and is expected to increase further to nearly 70 percent by 2050 (Figure 1).

While the growth of the urban population has occurred worldwide, it has been more substantial for less developed regions. The proportion of the populations residing in urban centers in less developed regions has nearly tripled, jumping from 18 percent in 1950 to 52 percent today.

The far-reaching urban transition continues to be well underway. By midcentury two-thirds of the population of less developed regions, some 5.8 billion inhabitants, is expected to be living in urban centers.

In addition to increased levels of urbanization, the population sizes of urban agglomerations have increased significantly over the past 70 years. In 1950 there was a single city megacity, New York, with a population of 10 million or more inhabitants. Today there are 33 megacities and that number is projected to increase to 43 by 2030.

Some of the most rapid population growth of megacities during the past few decades occurred in Africa and Asia. Since 1990, the populations of no less than ten megacities, including Delhi, Shanghai, Dhaka, Lahore and Lagos, have tripled in size (Figure 2).

Rapid population growth is expected to continue over the coming decade for many of the megacities in less developed regions. The population of Kinshasa, for example, which grew from 3.8 million in 1990 to 13.2 million in 2018, is projected to reach 22 million by 2030, making it the world's tenth largest megacity at that time.

It is widely recognized that urbanization offers a large variety of social, economic and cultural benefits, opportunities and freedoms. In addition to employment and career development, urban residents have ready access to education, health care, social services, cultural institutions, recreation and government agencies.

It is also acknowledged, however, that urbanization places stresses on social services, infrastructure and the physical environment that can make urban living difficult, especially for low income groups. This is particularly evident in the cities of less developed regions.

The increasing proportions the world's population residing in the rapidly growing urban centers of less developed countries pose serious developmental challenges for local and national governments. The basic needs of daily living for those growing urban populations, including food, water, housing, electricity, employment, education, health care, transportation, security, telecommunications, sanitation and waste management, are not meeting increased demands and desired goals.

Most recently, the populations of many large cities are facing the effects of climate change. In addition to having to deal with flooding, rising sea levels, droughts, fires and higher temperatures, many cities, especially those in Bangladesh, China, India, Indonesia and Pakistan, are now confronting air pollution. In addition to the increased risks of morbidity and mortality, ambient air pollution has enormous economic and social costs, with cities in low- and middle-income countries suffering the biggest burden from this environmental challenge.

The failure to adequately meet the fundamental needs and aspirations of urban populations is having serious consequences, particularly in the less developed countries. In addition to rising poverty levels, shortages of water, food and energy and worsening environmental conditions, those consequences include social unrest, political instability, civil violence and armed conflict.

Furthermore, those consequences will not remain confined within national borders, but will have international repercussions for neighboring countries as well as distant countries in more developed regions. Among the likely repercussions are calls for increased development assistance, requests for emergency/humanitarian relief services, rising numbers of internally displaced persons and asylum seekers, and substantially more men, women and children actively seeking to migrate to wealthier nations by both legal and illegal means.

The development and improvement of urban living is among the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to be achieved by 2030. Goal 11 of the SDGs aims to make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable, including emphasis on housing, health, energy, public transportation, environment, cultural heritage, employment and business opportunities.

While some developmental progress has been achieved in a number of cities in the recent past, governments are by and large falling behind in their efforts and commitments to the SDGs. The lack of progress is most evident among cities in less developed countries, which have experienced rapid demographic growth.

In brief, increasing proportions of a growing world population are located in less developed regions with rising concentrations living in their urban centers. By 2030 about 4 billion people, or about half of the world's population, will be living in the cities of less developed regions.

Government authorities of those cities in cooperation with national leaders need to take urgent action now, including formulating appropriate polices, undertaking comprehensive planning and establishing effective programs. To do otherwise not only greatly handicaps the achievement of desired development goals, but it also undermines the provision of essential basic services and fundamental infrastructure required by the world's growing urban populations in less developed regions.

© Inter Press Service (2019) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service