MARK NICHOLS September 5 1988


MARK NICHOLS September 5 1988



Early this year, as a heavy smog hung over Mexico City, two boys playing soccer watched a bird fall to the grass nearby—and die. A doctor, who also saw birds falling through that haze, collected several dead birds and took them to the city’s National University laboratory. There, researchers found that the birds’ bodies contained lethal levels of lead, mercury and other toxic metals. The spectacle of poisoned birds falling from the sky was a grim demonstration not only of Mexico City’s extremely high levels of air pollution but of the population pressures that produce it. Nearly 18 million people live in the city’s congested urban sprawl—and the three million cars, trucks and buses that they use, as well as the city’s 120,000 industrial plants, make it one of the world’s most polluted megacities.

Urban giants are the pressure points of a fast-expanding world population that currently stands at 5.1 billion and is expected to grow to between eight and 11 billion people in the next century— almost certainly bringing ever-increas-

ing levels of poverty, human hardship and environmental destruction. The world’s population is currently growing at the staggering rate of more than 1.5 million people each week. And with fertility rates in industrialized countries remaining static—or declining—the fastest rates of growth are in the havenot nations of the Third World. Although birth control programs have dramatically reduced birth rates in some Asian nations—including China, South Korea, Singapore and Thailand— population growth in other developing nations is running out of control.

Cycles: During the next 30 years, demographic experts predict that—unless present trends are checked or reversed, as often happens when potentially disastrous cycles become widely publicized—Bangladesh alone will almost double to 206 million people from its current population of about 110 million. In Africa, Nigeria’s population is likely to rise to 274 million from 112 million. And by the year 2000, experts calculate that the world population will stand at about 6.2 billion—with 90 per cent of

that growth in the Third World.

There, the need to feed, house and employ surging populations is already outstripping the capacities of the poorest nations—a trend that will worsen if people continue to deplete forests, farmland and other natural resources in pursuit of economic survival. Said Joseph Speidel, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Population Crisis Committee: “What we are going to face, I believe, is enormous human suffering.”

Certainly, suffering on a massive scale is already occurring in the slums and shantytowns of the megacities—urban areas that shelter more than 10 million people each and show strong signs of expansion. The industrialized world has two huge centres—greater New York City, with a population of 16 million residents, and the sprawl of Tokyo-Yokohama, with 18 million. Neither metropolis is expected to grow significantly in the next decade.

In less-developed nations, however, rapid urbanization is creating new giants. By the year 2000, Brazil’s industrial centre of Sâo Paulo will add another

eight million residents to its 14 million population if current trends continue. At that time, experts say, greater Mexico City will likely contain almost 26 million people.

Tensions: Many experts on population developments also say that economic policies that are common in developing nations —including concentrating industries in urban areas —have contributed significantly to the rapid growth of Third World cities. At the same time, some environmentalists predict that widespread poverty in those megacities of the future will likely generate acute political tensions. Uncontrolled ing dustrial growth in = Africa, Asia and Latin I America, said Irving 6 Mintzer, of the Washingg ton, D.C.-based World I Resources Institute, 5 “could create conditions of economic dislocation that result in wide-scale failures of crops and societies.”

Already, life in the developing world’s megacities is often a desperate fight for survival. In Mexico City, local authorities estimate that as many as eight million people are struggling to stay alive in teeming inner-city slums and outlying communities of squatters’ shacks, which crowd the mountain-ringed Valley of Mexico. As oil-rich Mexico grapples with an economic crisis brought on by low world petroleum prices and the nation’s $110-billion foreign debt, unemployment in the region has risen to an

estimated 30 per cent. The capital’s crime rate has risen as well. Police say that as many as five armed robberies occur every hour in the city.

Mexico’s City’s worst problem, say many residents, is its severely tainted air. The city itself is located on a plateau that is 7,350 feet above sea level, and at that altitude the air contains 20 per cent less oxygen than areas that are closer to sea level. As well, the sewage system funnels untreated liquid waste to an old lake bed. There, much of that effluent dries out—resulting in windborne fecal matter and other pollutants blowing back over the city. Still, local environmentalists blame 80 per cent of the city’s air pollution on gasoline-driven vehicles—most of which burn leaded gasoline and have no emission controls. As a result, a recent study by Mexico City’s privately funded Institute for Ecological Research estimated that 70 per cent of the babies born in the Mexico City federal district suffer from some degree of lead poisoning—a condition that carries the risk of brain damage.

Slum: The Indian city of Calcutta— with a population of nearly 11 million— has even greater pollution problems. Fed by high birthrates, reduced infant mortality and a flow of about 2,000 rural migrants into the city every day, overcrowding and poverty have converted almost all of the city into a giant slum. At night, as many as 240,000 people sleep outdoors—on the city’s sidewalks and in its back alleys. In some of Calcutta’s huge shantytowns, the population density reaches 106,000 people per square mile. Declared Bibhuti Mondai, a 27-year-old factory worker who shares a one-room shack in a north Calcutta slum with nine other family members: “At least I have a roof over my head. For many years, we spent our lives on the road, without any shelter at all.”

Calcutta is the most crowded of In-

dia’s troubled cities. With an overall population of 817 million, the country now has 12 cities holding more than a million people each—including Bombay, which has about 11 million residents. That total is expected to reach 16 million by the year 2000 if current growth trends are unchecked. But in an effort to deflect growth from already-swollen areas, central government planners in New Delhi (which itself has a population of about 10 million residents) last year earmarked $67 million for the development of 102 smaller towns as settlement sites. Still, with India’s population projected to reach 1.3 billion by the year 2020, some of those centres could become megacities themselves.

Even so, some experts maintain that governments can curb population growth. In an impressive demonstration of such a policy, China—the world’s most populous nation, with just over one billion people—launched a draconian birth control program in 1980. Among its provisions: fines for couples who insist on having more than two children. Now, China is close to stabilizing its current population level.

But other parts of the world are still experiencing rapid population growth. Despite attempts at birth control measures in Pakistan, that country’s population is expected to reach 242 million by 2020—almost doubling its current total of 107 million. Africa is another area of rampant population growth. With approximately 508 million people spread across the lands south of the Sahara Desert, the 47 states of black Africa are increasing their human numbers at a rate of about three per cent a year—growth that, if it continues, will double their current population size during the next 32 years.

Pressure: Although most African governments now acknowledge the need to curb growth, many of them lack the resources necessary to educate their people about birth control and supply them with modern contraceptive devices. In response, international agencies and many Western nations— including Canada—that fund birth control programs in developing countries are focusing increased attention on Africa. Meanwhile, the Population Crisis Committee’s Speidel estimates that governments around the world are spending $3 billion a year to encourage family planning—and that another $6 billion a year is needed to control population growth in the next century. If those measures fail, said Speidel, the pressures of too many people on too small a planet could threaten the survival of human life itself.