Many countries that have experienced rapid population growth for several decades are showing signs of demographic fatigue, a result of the struggle to deal with the multiple stresses caused by high fertility. Countries struggling with the simultaneous challenge of educating growing numbers of children, creating jobs for swelling ranks of young job seekers, and dealing with the environmental effects of population growth, such as deforestation, soil erosion, and falling water tables, are stretched to the limit. When a major new threat arises-such as AIDS or aquifer depletion-governments often cannot cope. Problems routinely managed in industrial societies are becoming full-scale humanitarian crises in many developing ones. As a result, some developing countries with rapidly growing populations are headed for population stability in a matter of years, not because of falling birth rates, but because of rapidly rising death rates.
As recent experience with AIDS in Africa shows, some countries which have reduced their death rates whilst birth rates remain high are simply overwhelmed when a new threat appears. While industrial countries have held HIV infection rates among their adult populations under 1 percent or less, a 1998 World Health Organization survey reports that in Zimbabwe, for example, 26 percent of the adult population is HIV positive. In Botswana it is 25 percent, Zambia 20 percent, Namibia 19 percent, and Swaziland 18 percent. Barring a miracle, these societies will lose one fifth or more of their adult population within the next decade from AIDS alone. These deaths will bring population growth to a halt or even into decline, with high mortality trends more reminiscent of the Dark Ages than the bright new millennium so many had hoped for.
New diseases are not the only threat to demographically fatigued countries. Because population growth affects so many dimensions of a society, any of several different stresses can force a country back into a primitive stage of development. For example, in many developing countries food supplies are threatened by aquifer depletion. Recent growth in food production and population in India, a country heavily dependent on irrigation, has been based partly on the unsustainable use of water. Nationwide, withdrawals of underground water are at least double the rate of recharge and water tables are falling by 1 to 3 meters per year. It is estimated that as India's aquifers are depleted, its grain harvest could fall by as much as one fifth. In a country where food and population are precariously balanced and which is adding 18 million people per year, such a huge drop in food output could create economic chaos.
The question is not whether population growth will slow in the developing countries but whether it will slow because societies quickly shift to smaller families or because ecological collapse and social disintegration cause death rates to rise. The challenge for national governments is to assess their land and water resources, determine how many people they will support at the desired level of consumption, and then formulate a population policy to reach that goal At the international level, the challenge is to quickly expand international family planning assistance, so that the millions of couples who want to limit family size but lack access to family planning services will be able to do so. In the absence of a concerted effort by national governments and the international community to quickly shift to smaller families, events in many countries could spiral out of control, leading to spreading political instability and economic decline.