LONDON -- The world's population is expected to top 6 billion next month, with most of the growth occurring in poor regions such as sub-Saharan Africa and southern Asia, according to U.N. figures released today.
"In the midst of the greatest wealth the world has ever seen, 1 billion people still live without the fundamental elements of human dignity -- clean water, enough food, secure housing, basic education and basic health care," said Dr. Nafis Sadik, executive director of the United Nations Population Fund.
Africa's population is the world's fastest-growing -- more than doubling to 767 million since 1960 -- although AIDS has cut life expectancy dramatically and access to basic services and jobs is limited, according to the State of the World Population Report 1999. Asia's population has doubled to 3.6 billion over the same period.
In comparison, North America and European growth has slowed or stopped altogether as more couples decide to have less than the two children needed to "replace" themselves, the report noted. The United States is the only industrial country where increases are still projected, largely as a result of immigration.
The report warned that the demographic shifts will need to be accompanied by policy shifts so developing regions can offer jobs and services to their growing populations.
The United Nations reviewed a 20-year action plan, drawn up by 179 countries in Cairo in 1994, and found two-thirds of the countries had introduced policies to encourage gender equality and that more than a third had updated health care policies. But Sadik stressed that the action plan was largely underfunded.
"We need $5.7 billion from the international community. We have $2 billion and $2.5 billion will have to be spent on Africa alone," Sadik said.
The review found "far too many" women in developing countries are denied access to education, family planning, contraception, and decent health care. Every year, 70,000 women die from unsafe abortions and, every minute, more than one woman dies from problems related to childbirth and pregnancy.
"In developing countries reproduction is the single greatest threat to their health," said Sadik. "Women are urged by society that that is their role, but then they're not really supported."
The report noted that women overall have been having fewer children, but so many are of childbearing age that birth rates have continued at a rate of about 78 million per year. That trend looks likely to continue, given that almost half the world's population is under the age of 25.
By 2050, the world population is expected to reach 8.9 billion, markedly lower than the 9.4 billion predicted by the United Nations two years ago, the report said.
It said the lower figure takes into account the ravages of the HIV/AIDS virus and increased mortality rates in sub-Saharan Africa and parts of the Indian subcontinent.
In 29 African countries, average life expectancy has been cut by seven years as a result of AIDS. Half of those infected are under the age of 24 and there is an urgent need to improve health care and education, the United Nations said.
In Botswana, where one of every four adults has the virus, life expectancy dropped from 61 years in the 1980s to 47 today -- and is expected to plunge to 38 by 2010, the report said. Despite Botswana's crisis, however, fertility rates continue to be high and the population is expected to nearly double by 2050, it said.
Continued population growth also affected environmental trends, which led to collapsed fisheries, shrinking forests and the extinction of plants and animals, the report said.
"One of the real choices we will face in the 21st century is how many species and ecosystems we are willing to eliminate in order to make more space for human activities," it warned.
On the positive side, the United Nations noted that mortality rates are dramatically falling, including infant mortality, which has dropped by two-thirds. Average life expectancy rose from 46 to 66 years.
The United Nations has designated Oct. 12 as the "Day of 6 Billion."