Sub-Saharan Africa’s population is set to double over the next 30 years, adding an additional 1bn people and putting it on track to overtake central and south Asia soon after as the world’s most populous region.
The high fertility rates south of the Sahara mean that region of Africa will account for more than half of global population growth between now and 2050, according to projections from the UN Population Division report released on Monday. The region’s population will still be rising fast at the end of the century, when the number of people living in much of Asia and elsewhere will be in decline.
The trend is exemplified by Nigeria, whose population has already surged from 95m in 1990 to 201m this year. Nigeria’s population is set to double again to more than 400m by 2050, when it will have overtaken the US as the world’s third most inhabited country.
In Niger, where women on average have seven children, the highest birth rate in the world, the population is projected to almost triple to 66m over the same time period. “In 2050 it is expected that Niger will be the only country in the world experiencing a fertility level greater than four births per woman over a lifetime,” the report said.
Liu Zhenmin, UN head of economic and social affairs, commented: “Many of the fastest growing populations are in the poorest countries, where population growth brings additional challenges in the effort to eradicate poverty, achieve greater equality, combat hunger and malnutrition and strengthen . . . health and education systems.”
The report predicted the number of human inhabitants in the world would grow from 7.7bn today to 9.7bn in 2050 and 10.9bn in 2100. “The global population continues to grow, but the rate of increase is slower today than at any time since 1950 and we expect it to continue to slow over the coming decades,” said Thomas Spoorenberg, UN population affairs officer.
Demographic experts analysed trends in fertility, mortality and migration for a year to come up with the projections, which are slightly below the previous estimates issued two years ago.
India is expected to overtake China as the world’s most populous country in or near 2027. By 2050, India with 1.6bn people will be well ahead of China whose population will then be back at the 2019 level of 1.4bn. Pakistan’s population, which stands at 217m, is one of the fastest growing outside Africa and a projected 338m in 2050.
At the other extreme, some places are experiencing population decline as a result of low fertility and high emigration rates. Twenty-seven countries have fewer inhabitants now than in 2010 and the number expected to experience a decline between today and 2050 is 55.
Population is falling fastest in eastern Europe, where Lithuania stands out with a decline of 12 per cent between 2010 and 2019 and a further decrease of 27 per cent projected from now to 2050.
Although fertility and death rates drive global population changes, migration to escape violence or poverty can have a large local impact. Syria is the most striking example, recording a 20 per cent population decline since 2010 as a result of people fleeing the civil war.
Puerto Rico has lost 17 per cent of its inhabitants since 2010 through emigration and is expected to lose another 17 per cent over the next 30 years. The US has gained the most immigrants over the past 10 years — about 10m people — and Germany has added 5m.
People also continue to live longer, the UN report showed. Average life expectancy at birth increased from 64.2 years in 1990 to 72.6 in 2019 and is expected to increase further to 77.1 in 2050.
The longevity differential between rich and poor countries has been closing, though life expectancy in the least developed countries is still 7.4 years behind the global average, due largely to high levels of child and maternal mortality, as well as violence, conflict and the continuing impact of the Aids epidemic.
Robin Maynard, director of Population Matters, a UK-based charity, welcomed the slight downwards adjustment in population projections. “But these figures nail the myth that population is going to decline soon,” he said. “There is only a one-in-four chance of that happening by the end of the century.”