7,000,000,000 and counting

Seven big problems for 7 billion people
Experts weigh in on predicaments caused by a burgeoning world population




Image: Residents crowd in a swimming pool in Daying county of Suining, ChinaReuters

Residents crowd in a swimming pool to escape the summer heat during a hot spell in Daying county of Suining, Sichuan province. China is the world’s most populous nation with more than 1.3 billion people.
By James Eng msnbc.com

Sometime on Monday, Oct. 31, the world’s population is projected to hit 7 billion. Is that numerical milestone a cause for celebration or concern?

A little bit of both, according to the United Nations Population Fund. The organization, an international development agency that promotes the right of every person to enjoy a life of health and equal opportunity, on Wednesday released a report detailing the achievements and setbacks faced by an ever-crowded world.

How we respond now will determine whether we have a healthy, sustainable and prosperous future or one that is marked by inequalities, environmental decline and economic setbacks, according to “The State of World Population 2011report.

The report notes that the record population can be viewed as a success because it means people are living longer — average life expectancy has increased from about 48 years in the early 1950s to about 68 in the first decade of the 21st century — and more children are surviving worldwide. But not everyone has benefited from a higher quality of life.

In some of the poorest countries women are having more babies, stymieing development and perpetuating poverty; in some of the wealthier countries low fertility rates and a shortage of workers are raising concerns about the sustainability of economic growth and social programs.

World population by the billions
1 billion – 1804
2 billion – 1927
3 billion – 1959
4 billion – 1974
5 billion – 1987
6 billion – 1999*
7 billion – 2011* Year when the milestone was observed by the United Nations.  Source: United Nations Population Fund

“This report makes the case that with planning and the right investments in people now — to empower them to make choices that are not only good for themselves but for our global commons — our world of 7 billion can have thriving, sustainable cities, productive labor forces that can fuel economic growth, youth populations that contribute to the well-being of economies and societies, and a generation of older people who are healthy and actively engaged in the social and economic affairs of their communities,” writes Babatunde Osotimehin, executive director of the UNFPA.

The 7 billion milestone “is a challenge, an opportunity and a call to action,” Osotimehin said.

In response to the report, msnbc.com asked seven notable figures to identify some major problems — and potential remedies — confronting a world with 7 billion inhabitants. Here’s what they had to say:

Paul R. Ehrlich
American biologist, Bing professor of population studies and professor of biological sciences at Stanford University and author of the 1968 best-seller, “The Population Bomb”

Problem: Food shortage, damage to environment
Seven billion is already facing us with horrendous problems, including almost 1 billion people hungry and contributing greatly to the chances of catastrophic climate disruption.  But the next 2 billion people the demographers expect by 2050 will cause much more environmental damage than did the last 2 billion added to our population — a classic nonlinearity.  That is because human beings are smart, and picked the low-hanging fruit first. Thus each added individual, on average, must now be fed from more marginal land, supplied with water from more distant or more polluted sources, obtain the metals required to make the products he or she consumes from poorer ores, etc.

Many past human societies have collapsed, with overpopulation playing a significant role.  But today, for the first time, a global civilization is in peril, and nothing significant is being done about it in societies insane enough to believe that growth can be perpetual.

Image: Paul R. Ehrlich

Paul R. Ehrlich

Women in every country should be given equal rights and opportunities with men, and every sexually active human being should be given access to excellent birth control methods, and, in case they fail, backup abortion. Governments should all adopt the slogan “patriotic citizens stop at two children” and adjust tax and other policies to discourage over-reproducers and those unethical elements in society that are pronatalist.

The current redistribution of wealth from poor to rich must be halted, and overconsumption by the rich must be controlled with programs such as those that transformed consumption patterns in the United States when it entered World War II.  A rapid transition away from the use of fossil fuels should be started immediately, as should rebuilding of human water-handling infrastructure with much more attention to resilience.  Leaders should be taught enough arithmetic to allow them to grasp the consequences of the growth rates recommended by economists — 3.5 percent per year.

Alfred Spector
Vice president of research and special initiatives at Google

Problem: Access to information technology, education
In the developed world technology has transformed our lives, allowing us to access information at any time from an ever growing number of devices. Tasks once performed by many have been reduced to a single click or tap. However, as the world population exceeds 7 billion people, we must ensure that all are armed with the skills to leverage the vast powers of information technology to improve their lives. Furthermore, we must increase the level of education for all residents of our planet for the mutual benefit of our global society. According to the United Nations Development Programme over 70 million children receive no education and most of them are girls.

Image: Alfred Spector

Google Inc. Alfred Spector

The good news is that information technology itself is a major part of the solution. With the decreasing costs of smartphones and tablets in the developing world we are seeing a whole new population accessing the Internet. Today, a teacher in India can purchase a $38 Android tablet and bring unprecedented amounts of information into the classroom. Whether through more prevalent network connections like the fiber-optic links connecting Africa, ever more creative software connecting people online, or the vast amounts of Web-based content now accessible to millions, technology is getting into a position to help educate the world.

And learning is increasingly possible online: there are vast amounts of free information on the Web, from Wikipedia to millions of books accessible to all. Or middle- and high school-level YouTube classes like those from the Kahn Academy. And the interest is there. At Stanford’s recent online course about artificial intelligence taught by Googlers Peter Norvig and Sebastian Thrun nearly 50,000 people turned in the first assignment.

So in ways that were inconceivable only a few years ago, useful educational materials are spreading across the planet — and the cost of access is declining markedly. However, there is still much work ahead of us and great opportunities to accelerate this access to information.

Alexandra Paul
Actress (best known for her role as Lt. Stephanie Holden in TV series “Baywatch”) and environmental and political activist

Problem: Women’s rights and gender inequality
I believe we must work to lower the world population to 2 billion people, which was the human population of this planet only 80 years ago.

When the planet is overpopulated, the weakest in society are hurt the most because strained resources go to those with more power.  In many countries, women have very low social status and few rights, but ironically, one of the most efficient ways to stabilize and lower population is to empower women. Today, the biggest barrier to lowering birth rates is gender inequality.  Where girls and women are second-class citizens, where they are taken out of school early, where violence against females is accepted and where women have no say in family planning, birth rates are highest.  When women have no place in society other than to have children and take care of the home, they begin having children at young ages and have larger families.

Actress Alexandra Paul

For every year a girl stays in school she’ll increase her income by at least 10 percent. She’ll get married later. She is more likely to use birth control and will have fewer children, who in turn will be more likely to attend school.

A woman’s status in a society is deeply embedded in its culture; therefore, it is vital that we support programs that influence attitudes toward women.  It is important not to force change, which doesn’t stick in the long run, but to instead transform ingrained belief systems.  The best way to do that is through entertainment — specifically, the soap opera. Population Media Center uses serialized dramas on radio and television to encourage positive behavior change.

These shows, which often run weekly for several years, allow time for the audience to form bonds with the characters, who are evolving in their thinking and behavior at a gradual, believable pace.  Each program is first and foremost riveting drama, often taking 60 episodes before messaging storyline is subtly introduced.  For example, Radio Tanzania broadcast a serial drama that attracted 58 percent of the 15- to 45-year-olds in the region. Because of the birth control issues the characters in the program tackled during the course of the show, there was a marked increase in the percentage of Tanzanians in the region who discussed family planning with their spouses and who began to use birth control themselves.  Not because they were forced to, but because they wanted to.

As an actress, I appreciate the power of the media.  But I especially love that soap operas are proving to be one of the most effective tools in lowering birth rates around the world, as Americans have long snickered over this form of entertainment.  Now, however, the lowly telenovela is gaining respect.  “All My Childrenmay have been canceled, but there’s worthy work for Susan Lucci over in Bangladesh.

John Carr
Executive director of justice, peace and human development of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

Image: John Carr

US Conference of Catholic Bishops, John Carr

Problem: Climate change
Global climate change offers a cruel paradox: The poorest people on earth contribute least to climate change but are likely to suffer its worst consequences since they have the fewest resources to adapt and respond. Climate change with increasing water scarcity, food insecurity, frequency and intensity of natural disasters, migration and conflict over declining resources will exacerbate the challenges felt by people in poverty and a growing world population.

A central moral measure of our response to climate change is how it touches poor and vulnerable people at home and abroad. The U.S. Catholic Bishops encourage Catholics to care for creation and the poor by reducing their carbon footprint, taking the St. Francis Pledge, and advocating for climate policies that bring together care for creation and for “the least of these.”

Robert Engelman
President of the Worldwatch Institute and the author of the 2008 book “More: Population, Nature, and What Women Want

Image: Robert Engelman

Worldwatch Institute, Robert Engelman

Problem: Aging
With 7 billion people of all ages in the world this month and a median age of about 30 we’re likely to have several billion people older than 65 late in the century. We have no experience with a vast population of older people like this one will be, and by that time climate change will have advanced significantly — and possibly catastrophically — and fossil fuels are likely to be far more expensive than they are today. The challenge of keeping these people alive and healthy will be vast.

What we should NOT do is try vainly to keep the ratio of young to old constant by attempting to convince women to have more children [than] they want to have. That will just postpone the day of reckoning and make the problem worse by continually enlarging the population of all ages. Better to prepare for this likely future with a focus on preventive health, finding better ways to take advantage of the productive and other assets of older populations, and moving toward simpler and less energy- and resource-intensive lifestyles than today’s.

Patrick Tucker
Deputy editor of The Futurist, a magazine about social and technological trends, and director of communications for the World Future Society

Problem: Energy
Experts predict that energy demand will double by 2050 and that’s a very conservative estimate. As we’ve reported in THE FUTURIST, petroleum alternatives now comprise less than 20 percent of global energy use and are growing at just 30 percent per year.  By 2020, only 30 percent of global energy is likely to come from alternative energy sources.

Image: Patrick Tucker

Patrick Tucker

As a replacement for oil, halophyte or salt-water alga is abundant, cheap, and has the potential to reduce global carbon-dioxide levels tremendously. Halophyte algae do not compete with food stocks for freshwater (unlike corn). At present, algae need too much nitrogen to be practical as a replacement for oil, but a genetically engineered species of salt-water algae, capable of surviving and growing on less nitrogen than conventional algae, could provide both abundant energy and food.

As covered previously in THE FUTURIST magazine, when the cost of pumping ocean water into so-called “wasteland” regions such as the Sahara is factored in, the cost of halophytic algae biofuel is less than the cost of petroleum trading at $70 per barrel or higher. Desert areas receive a lot of sunlight. That means that halophyte algae farmers could use solar-powered pumps to move water up from sea level. Many of today’s water-stressed regions in Libya, Chad, Sudan, western Australia, the Middle East, eastern Africa, the American southwest, and west Texas can become productive real estate.

NASA scientist Dennis Bushnell, (also writing for THE FUTURIST magazine) has pointed out that genetically-engineered halophytic algae could lessen the world’s food and water shortages as well. Some 68 percent of the freshwater that is now tied up in agriculture could instead go to growing populations. Even better, algae require only a fraction of the land area of many other crops and can provide an excellent source of protein.

Aklog Birara
Former World Bank economist and author of “Ethiopia: The Great Land Giveaway”

Image: Aklog Birara

Andinetusa.org, Aklog Birara

Problem: Water
I believe that rapid population growth in many poorer countries in South Asia, almost all of Africa and Central America is a time bomb. Just take Ethiopia, one of the most emergency food aid countries in the world. Its population today is 90 million and is projected to grow to 278 million by 2050. One least-understood problem about such insane growth is the potential for regional wars to control water resources, for example, war between Egypt and Ethiopia. This will lead to intracountry and regional instability that will in turn reinforce extremist forces and perpetuate poverty and lack of security. Poor and repressive governance in the region and in others aggravates both insecurity and poverty.

The most important solution that will avert a disaster is for the world community [to] channel most of its aid and intellectual resources in support of smallholder farming revolutions. Poor people will be owners of their own destiny; they will reduce the propensity to have more children as security and will reduce size. Rural girls and women will be more empowered and will choose their family size.

I also like to suggest that the world can no longer afford to follow the same economic and social model of insatiable demand and consumption and concentration of consumption and wealth in a few hands — a phenomenon that is now spreading in developing countries. I cannot imagine that the rest of the world would tolerate continuation of 20 percent of humanity consuming 80 percent of the world’s goods and services, while one-fifth of the poorest consume only 1.3 percent. Is this not what triggered the Arab Spring and is likely to trigger Springs in the rest of, at least the poorer and most repressed countries?

Vijay Mahajan
Indian social entrepreneur, former dean of the Indian School of Business in Hyderabad, professor at McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin, and author of “The 86% Solution”

Image: Vijay Mahajan

University of Texas at Austin, Vijay Mahajan

Problem: Consumer innovation
My perspective has not changed much since the publication of my last two books (“The 86% Solution” and “Africa Rising” and the new one that I will finish in the next two weeks, “The Arab World Unbound”). I continue to believe that consumers are going to be in the 86% of the world — where the GDP per capita is less than $10,000. Since 1948, other than Japan, very few countries have managed to be a part of the 14% World (GDP per capita more than $10,000). Some examples include Gulf Cooperation Council countries, Singapore, Taiwan, Israel, South Korea, Slovenia and other Eastern European countries. Brazil and Russia just hit that mark but there are no guarantees that they will continue to be part of the 14%. In fact, since 1948, other than Japan, less than 200-300 million people have managed to be part of 14% World. I do not think this situation is going to change in my lifetime including for China and India — though certain parts may look like 14% there).

Rather than looking at the 86% World as Charity (like Africa with more than 1 billion consumers), entrepreneurs and companies need to focus on 86% solutions — be that toilets, housing, diseases, education, women hygiene products, transportation, energy, infrastructure, banking, media, etc. I wish, like COMDEX, where high-tech industry used to showcase its state-of-art products, there would an annual global exhibition where entrepreneurs and companies  from all over the world (both 14% and 86%) showcase their leapfrog 86% Solutions (such exhibitions can be done in the individual countries also). This will accelerate the diffusion of ideas and may even provide an opportunity to investors to bring to the market products and services to meet the aspirations of 7 billion consumers. I believe that many of the 86% solutions will also be good for the 14% world. This will also help us in the U.S. to move away from what I call the “2,400-square-feet mindset” — the average size of the house in the U.S. is 2,400 square feet so our innovation and marketing processes are focused on [a] 2,400-square-foot house with about 1.8 to two persons, on the average, living  in the houses — throw in some pets like a dog or cat. This can also make U.S. companies more competitive and give access to the 86% markets.

        Story: World population nears 7 billion: Can we handle it? 

See more posts and images related to the seven billion population milestone

7 billion people tax the world’s environment

David Gray / Reuters

A garbage collector walks atop a massive pile of garbage at the Bloemendhal dump in central Colombo, Sri Lanka, on April 23, 2009.

Will the sheer scale of 7 billion people living on the planet doom human existence to extinction?

Not likely, many scientists say, but they do worry about how many people a disturbed and soiled Earth will support.

The United Nations Population Fund predicts not only that the planet’s population will reach 7 billion by Oct. 31, but another billion will be here by 2025, and the total will reach 10 billion before the end of the century.

China Daily via Reuters

A worker cleans away dead fish at a lake in Wuhan, central China’s Hubei province, on July 11, 2007. More than 110,000 pounds of fish died due to pollution and hot weather, local media reported.

Beawiharta Beawiharta / Reuters

Deforestation is evident on Indonesia’s Sumatra island on Aug. 5, 2010. Indonesia, like Brazil, is on the front line of efforts to curb deforestation, a major contributor to mankind’s greenhouse gas emissions that scientists blame for heating up the planet.

All those people will need water, food, clothing, shelter, energy – all of which take resources to create or distribute and which can foul the environment as they’re processed and used up.

In 1798, when the world’s population was close to 1 billion, British-born economist Thomas Malthus wrote, “The power of population is so superior to the power of the Earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race.”

Malthus did not take into account the then-coming industrial age and people’s inventions and ingenuity that meant more efficient use of Earth’s resources. However, population growth could be catching up to problems it creates.

Reinhard Krause / Reuters

Cars jam a Beijing road on Jan. 15, 2008. More than 400,000 new cars, or more than 1,000 a day, hit the roads in China’s capital in 2006, state media said.

Asahi Shimbun / Reuters

Medical staff use a Geiger counter to screen a woman for possible radiation exposure at a public welfare center in Hitachi City, Japan, on March 16, 2011. The woman tested negative for radiation exposure after she was evacuated from an area within 12.4 miles of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, which leaked radiation when it was badly damaged by a massive earthquake and tsunami on March 11.

Modern scientists warn that the Earth’s climate is warming and access to clean water is dwindling. Oil spills contaminate beaches and oceans; poisons leach from dumped waste into soil and water; the burning of fossil fuels pumps more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than it can absorb.

New energy sources will be needed as known sources of fossil fuels are depleted or remain locked away.


A man works at the site of a rare earth metals mine at Nancheng county, China, on Oct. 20, 2010. China reportedly produced 118,900 metric tons of rare earth in 2010, well above the 89,200 metric ton official production quota. The production figure exceeded 96 percent of global output, The Wall Street Journal reported .

Pawel Kopczynski / Reuters

Steam emerges from the cooling towers of Vattenfall’s Jaenschwalde brown coal power station near Cottbus, Germany, on Dec. 2, 2009.

“Hunger and poverty are challenges we all face together – we must act now,” said Pierre Ferrari, president of Heifer International, which provides cows, goats, water buffalo and other livestock to thousands of people in more than 50 countries. The charity focuses on helping the poor become self-sufficient and urges the people it helps to go on to train others.

“Our global agricultural system can feed 7 billion people today,” Ferrari said. “It is a matter of equity and distribution.”

“The real issue to be faced is the next 30 years when another 2 billion people will be with us,” he said. “It is forecasted that the global food supply will need to double to meet the needs of the global population.  The small holder farmer (650 million of them) produces 70 percent of the world food today.”

Heifer is an example of a non-government organization that works to improve agricultural productivity.

But will such efforts be enough?

“The constraints of the biosphere are fixed,” Harvard University sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson wrote in his 2002 book, “The Future of Life.”

As reported by Life’s Little Mysteries, Wilson predicted the Earth’s resources could be stretched to support a population of 10 billion, just about where UN population estimators say growth will level out by the end of the century.

– msnbc.com editors Natalia Jimenez and Jim Gold, with wire service reports.

Michael B. Watkins/U.S. Navy via Reuters

Oil is seen on the surface of the Gulf of Mexico in an aerial view of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill off the coast of Mobile, Alabama, on May 6, 2010.

What do 7 billion people look like?

Paulo Santos / Reuters

Roman Catholic pilgrims press together while following the image of the local saint, Our Lady of Nazareth, as it is paraded Oct. 11, 2009, during the annual Cirio de Nazare procession, the country’s biggest religious festival, in Belem, at the mouth of the Amazon River. More than 1 million Catholics, many from communities along the Amazon River’s tributaries, converged on Our Lady of Nazareth basilica to participate in the event.

Nicky Loh / Reuters

Motorists crowd at a junction during rush hour in Taipei on Oct. 29, 2009. There are around 8.8 million motorcycles and 4.8 million cars on Taiwan’s roads. Nearly all motor vehicles and inhabitants are squeezed into a third of the island’s area, resulting in high concentrations of polluting emissions in the places where people live and work, according to official reports.

Morris Macmatzen / Reuters

Sunbathers and roofed wicker beach chairs line up along the beach on the bay of Travemuende, a popular holiday resort at the Baltic sea near the northern German city of Luebeck, on Aug. 5, 2007.

The fastest growth is seen in sub-Saharan Africa, which has the world’s highest birthrates and deepest poverty. The regional population of nearly 900 million could reach 2 billion in 40 years.

“Most of that growth will be in Africa’s cities, and in those cities it will almost all be in slums where living conditions are horrible,” said John Bongaarts of the Population Council, a New York-based research organization.

Akintunde Akinleye / Reuters

A man walks on a pedestrian bridge overlooking traffic in Lagos, Nigeria, on Sept. 18, 2006.

Nigeria’s commercial capital, Lagos, with an estimated 15 million people and a 6 percent growth rate, is expected to overtake Cairo soon as Africa’s largest city. Problems with traffic congestion, sanitation and water supplies are staggering; a recent article in UN-Habitat said two-thirds of the residents live in poverty.

India is Asia’s second-largest country with 1.2 billion people, but by 2030 it may surpass No. 1 China, now with 1.34 billion people.


A view of a residential building in Shanghai on March 18, 2009.


Job-seekers crowd a job fair in Wuhan, China, on March 17, 2007. Unemployment could be long-term trouble for China, with the number of jobless urban residents alone exceeding 15 million, the China Information News quoted a senior official as saying, Xinhua News Agency reported.

Across India, teeming slums, congested streets, and crowded trains and trams are testimony to the country’s burgeoning population.

At 6 p.m. on a typical evening in Mumbai, India’s financial hub, 7 million commuters swarm out of their offices and head to railway stations for rides home on an overtaxed suburban rail network. Every few minutes, as a train enters the station, the crowd surges forward.

Every ride is a scramble. Each car is jam-packed; sometimes, riders die when they lose their foothold while clinging to the doors.

– msnbc.com editors Natalia Jimenez and Jim Gold, with wire service reports.

For more information: Beijing’s ‘hubs’ haven’t curbed population pressures

K.K. Arora / Reuters

Hindu devotees travel on a crowded passenger train to take part in the “Guru Purnima” festival near Mathura, India on July 24, 2010.

Room for more? Squeeze in, the world population is about to hit 7 billion

Rajanish Kakade / AP

A newborn baby boy is weighed on a scale at a government hospital in Mumbai, India on Oct. 5. Already the second most populous country with 1.2 billion people, India is expected to overtake China around 2030 when its population soars to an estimated 1.6 billion.

Natalia Jimenez writes

The world is about to get a little more crowded.

By the end of October, it is expected that there will be 7 billion people living on the planet, according to the U.N. Population Fund. We are hitting this milestone, even though Western Europe, Japan and Russia are currently facing population declines as a result of low birthrates and aging populations. The declines cause serious concerns about who will care for and support the elderly, with a smaller number of people in the work force contributing to taxes and welfare.

While India and China have the largest populations, it is sub-Saharan Africa that has the highest birthrates. Quickly growing countries like Nigeria, Uganda and Burundi are already struggling with the area’s limited food and water resources, combined with high poverty levels.

For more information see: 7 population milestones for 7 billion people

Ng Han Guan / AP

Children play at a square in Beijing on Feb. 3, 2010. For now, China remains the most populous nation, with 1.34 billion people. In the past decade it added 73.9 million, more than the population of France or Thailand. Nonetheless, its growth has slowed dramatically and the population is projected to start shrinking in 2027. By 2050, according to some demographers, it will be smaller than it is in 2011.

Alvaro Barrientos / AP

Two elderly men sit on benches in the small town of La Puebla de Arganzon, northern Spain on Oct. 9. Spain used to give parents 2,500 euros ($3,300) for every newborn child to encourage families to reverse the country’s low birth rate. But the checks stopped coming with Spain’s austerity measures, raising the question of who will pay the bills to support the elderly in the years ahead.

Rafiq Maqbool / AP

Commuters hang on the outside of a local train in Mumbai, India on Oct. 10. Already the second most populous country with 1.2 billion people, India is expected to overtake China around 2030 when its population soars to an estimated 1.6 billion.

Luca Bruno / AP

A man uses a cane as he walks among other people through an open air market in Milan, Italy on Oct. 12. In 2010, more Italians died than were born for the fourth consecutive year according to the national statistics agency. Italy’s population nonetheless grew slightly to 60.6 million due to immigration, a highly charged issue across Europe. Italy’s youth minister Giorgia Meloni said earlier this year that measures to reverse the birth rate require “millions in investment” but that the resources aren’t available.

Andy Wong / AP

Tourists visit Tiananmen Gate on China’s National Day in Beijing on Oct. 1. For now, China remains the most populous nation, with 1.34 billion people. In the past decade it added 73.9 million, more than the population of France or Thailand. Nonetheless, its growth has slowed dramatically and the population is projected to start shrinking in 2027. By 2050, according to some demographers, it will be smaller than it is in 2011.

Godfrey Olukya / AP

Ahmed Kasadha, center foreground, on the porch of his house in Iganga, Uganda, with one of his wives and six of his 14 children on Oct. 1. A polygamist, Kasadha says large families are a sign of success and God’s blessing. His father had 25 children, and he wants his own family to get bigger. Uganda, and other countries in sub-Saharan Africa, have some of the world’s highest birthrates – a point of concern as the world’s population hits the 7 billion mark on Oct. 31, 2011 according to the U.N. Population Fund.

Rajanish Kakade / AP

The Dharavi slum in Mumbai, India at twilight on Oct. 9. Already the second most populous country with 1.2 billion people, India is expected to overtake China around 2030 when its population soars to an estimated 1.6 billion.

Be sure to visit MSNBC.COM for continuing world population coverage
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With 7 Billion People, World Has a Poop Problem

By Stephanie Pappas | LiveScience

The 7 billionth person on Earth will draw his or her first breath on Oct. 31, at least according to estimates by the United Nations. Assuming all systems are in working order, that baby will also create its first
output that same day, in the form — to put it delicately — of a dirty

Cover of "The Big Necessity: The Unmentio...

Approximately 2.6 billion people around the world lack any sanitation whatsoever. More than 200 million tons of human waste goes untreated every year. In the developing world, 90 percent of sewage is
discharged directly into lakes, rivers and oceans. And even in developed
countries, cities depend on old, rickety sewage systems that are easily
overwhelmed by a heavy rain.

That dirty diaper is only the tip of an iceberg of human manure produced around the globe every day. It might seem a reasonable question to ask how humanity will deal with this output of feces as the world’s population creeps toward 10 billion by 2100. But that question presumes we have the poop problem under control now. Here’s the bad news: We don’t.

All this untreated sewage adds up to a major public health crisis that kills an estimated 1.4 million children each year, according to the World Health Organization. That’s one child every 20 seconds, or more than AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined. Despite this massive death toll, sanitation hasn’t gotten the same attention as other world development goals. The United Nations, which set a goal to halve the
number of people without basic sanitation by 2015, now calls that target “out of reach.”

Learning to talk about toiletsThat taboo is one reason that sanitation hasn’t taken off as a major issue in the public’s mind, Yeo said. But providing sanitation is also more complex than “if you build it, they will come,” according to Rose George, the author of “The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters” (Metropolitan Books, 2008).

“The assumption was that latrines would be used and that everyone needs a flush toilet,” George told LiveScience of early sanitation efforts. “People not necessarily wanting latrines was provedin India when the government provided millions almost free in the 1980s, and then millions of these kind-of-adequate latrines got turned into goat sheds or storage areas, because people are used to just going and crapping in the bush.

Crapping in the bush,” also known as “open defecation,” is a major problem, George said, because the pathogens from the feces invariably end up tracked back into the village, often contaminating the community water supply.

Image by Ton Haex via Flickr

Open defecation also puts people in rural areas such as sub-Saharan Africa at risk for snakebites as they go tramping into the bushes in the dark, George said. Women looking for a private place to go are at risk of being followed and sexually assaulted, she said.

According to WaterAid, many women in Africa wait until nightfall to relieve themselves, putting themselves at risk of urinary tract infections, because propriety dictates that women don’t go where someone might see them.

To tackle the open-defecation problem, aid organizations had to learn to work with the people on the ground to explain why sanitation matters, Yeo told LiveScience. In Bangladesh, for example, WaterAid works with a local music-theater performance troupe that puts on sanitation-related skits for school hildren.

George uncovered enormous cultural differences in the way people think about using the bathroom. In China, for example, plenty of public bathrooms lack doors on the stalls — or even stalls.

Meanwhile, Americans happily use toilets in stalls with large gaps below, above and on either side of the door, a fact that seems bizarre in George’s native Britain. In the U.K., she said, public toilet stalls are completely closed off.

toilets of the world, unite!

“You have to understand that it’s about software — psychology — as well as just the hardware of putting in pipes and toilets,” George said.

Providing the plumbing but the hardware matters, too. For one thing, the latrines can’t be more disgusting than the alternative they’re replacing, George said. Who wants to hang out in a dank, fly-infested latrine when you could just move your bowels down by the river?

Urbanization is another challenge, Yeo said. According to the U.N., the proportion of people living in urban slums around the world has declined from 39 percent in 2000 to 33 percent in 2010. But the absolute number of people living in slums is actually growing, with about 828 million slum-dwellers worldwide in 2010.In many cases, these slums are informal communities that local governments would rather not recognize officially, Yeo said.

“They’re often on land they don’t own, and they aren’t recognized as having the rights to that land,” he said.

Ancient roman latrines / latrinae, Ostia Antica


That makes officials reluctant to solve the sewage problems in these slums, since adding them to the grid would amount to tacit approval of their existence, Yeo said.

“Sanitation is not a sexy issue,” said Dan Yeo, a senior policy analyst at WaterAid, a nongovernmental organization dedicated to hygiene, water and sanitation issues. “It’s about s—, and that’s not particularly attractive. It’s a taboo to talk about in a lot of contexts.”

Meanwhile, just the physical layout of urban slums makes adding latrines
difficult. A high density of human beings means a high density of human waste. Narrow streets make it tough to get latrine-emptying trucks into the area. In urban settlements, Yeo said, it’s often important to encourage planning by local governments so these engineering problems don’t blindside cities later on.
[Read: How Many People Can Earth Support?]

Sewers and ‘fatbergs’

Investing in sanitation is by any measure a winning bet: According to the
U.N., for every dollar invested in sanitation, $8 are returned in reduced public health costs and lost productivity due to disease. According to WaterAid, a $30 donation buys one person access to both clean water and sanitation.

The availability of a toilet can have wide-ranging effects, George said. In
developing areas, she said, up to 20 percent of girls drop out of school,
because they have no place to relieve themselves. Providing a latrine can mean the difference between illiteracy and education.

Image by Gerard Stolk vers la Toussaint via Flickr

But while the developing world undoubtedly bears the burden of poor sanitation, it would be a mistake to think that developed countries have it all figured out, George said. Urbanization and population growth have taken their toll on the crumbling sewer systems beneath many municipalities, she said, and many sewer systems are forced to release untreated sewage when a sudden downpour swamps the system.

“In the U.S., there’s a massive, multimillion-dollar gap between the funding that is needed to maintain the sewer system and what is being given,” George said. “Even a five-minute rainstorm can overwhelm the sewer system.”

Even worse, she added, people’s “out of sight, out of mind” attitude means they abuse the sewer system we do have.

“I’ve been down the London sewers, and all the ‘flushers’ who work down there say, ‘We don’t mind the s—, but we do mind the fat,'” she said.

The fat, George said, is household and restaurant grease that gets poured down drains and congeals into enormous “fatbergs,” floating chunks of grease and oil. These grease bombs wreak havoc on an
already strained system.

“We think we have it all sorted in the West,” George said. “But we absolutely don’t.”

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