Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2011

Nobody Home: The Countries Where Population Is on the Decline

The global population may have increased by an unprecedented one billion in the past 12 years, but not all parts of the planet are sharing in the people boom. In fact, some nations are in the midst of the just the opposite: large-scale population decline.

They are mostly former Soviet Republics and Eastern European countries. According to the latest U.N. count, of the 24 nations that registered population falls between 2005 and 2010 only Puerto Rico, Germany and some small island nations were not from this region.

The Republic of Moldova — with a dwindling population of 3.6 million sandwiched between larger neighbors Ukraine and Romania — tops the global list of big countries' negative growth, with a 1.1% average annual drop over the five-year period. Nearby Bulgaria, Georgia and Ukraine are next on the list, each with declines of 0.6%. Lithuania, Belarus, Latvia, Hungary, Croatia, the Russian Federation, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Estonia are also shrinking, population wise. Common to almost all of them are vicious combinations of low birth rates, high death rates, low immigration and rising emigration.

Moldova's death rate, at 13.5 per 1,000 people, is far ahead of that of the U.K. (9.5) and U.S. (8.3), and even tops that of war-torn African countries such as Congo (11.7). Its sluggish birth rate, at 1.5 children per woman, is among the lowest in the world and well below the recognized replacement level of 2.1.

Yet what's really pushing Moldova to the top of the table is the number of people leaving the country. According to the Government's statistics, one-third of the economically active population — and 60% of 20-39 year-olds — have emigrated since 1999, primarily to Russia, Western Europe and the U.S. They leave behind an elderly population and a country crippled by skill shortages.

In response, Moldova's reformist Government, which came to power in November 2010, has established a National Commission for Population and Development. It wants to encourage emigrants to return and reintegrate, offering incentives and job opportunities to the highly qualified. Unless it can arrest the trend, by 2050 the U.N. estimates Moldova will have a million fewer people than it does today.

Russia has exhibited similar birth and death rates in recent years. In 2006, then President (and current Prime Minister) Vladimir Putin declared declining population "the most urgent problem" facing the country. Authorities have been trying to encourage women to have more children by offering cash grants, extended maternity leave and improved day-care services.

It isn't clear if these efforts have been successful. The population stabilized at 142.9 million people at the end of 2010, thanks to a rise in birth rates of 23%, a fall in death rates down 11.2% and an increase in life expectancy to 68.9 years. But figures from the official statistics agency Rosstat for the first eight months of 2011 show a fall in annual births to 12.3 per 1000 population and a persistently high death rate at 13.7 per 1000.

The government's Health and Social Development Ministry admits the situation outside large cities is far from stable. In the countryside, despite an above-average birth rate, death rates in 2010 were 13.4% higher and infant mortality 19.7% higher than the national averages. Meanwhile, in the country's resource-rich Far East — long one of the most sparsely populated places on earth — numbers have shrunk by a quarter in the last 20 years.

Russia's official count isn't universally accepted. The CIA, which produces its own figures in its World Factbook (but does not disclose its sources) estimates Russia's population to be falling at a much greater rate and standing, in July, at just 138.7 million. It also has the country's birth rate at 11.05 births per 1,000 population — by its reckoning 173rd in the world — and the death rate at 16.04 deaths per 1,000, the fifth highest globally. These are figures comparable to markedly poorer sub-Saharan Africa. Heart disease from high rates of smoking and alcohol consumption, substandard healthcare and poor workplace environments are all cited as factors.

Regardless of which statistics are more accurate, Russia's population is undoubtedly in long-term decline. U.N. projections showing continued falls throughout the century to an eventual population of 111 million by 2100. This has serious implications for the country's future economic growth. (Experts are already predicting a labor shortage of 14 million skilled workers by 2020.)

The surprising thing, however, is Russia won't be the biggest net population loser by the end of the century. That place, at least according to U.N. predictions, will go to the country that is currently the world's most populous: China. By 2100, China is projected to have 400 million less people than it does now. Japan will have 35 million fewer.

Demographic expert Nicholas Eberstadt, writing in Foreign Affairs, argues that the current century will be marked by a fertility implosion. "A dramatic, far-reaching, and, as yet, unremitting global reduction in childbearing and birthrates is now under way," he says. That's good news for anybody who fears a critically overcrowded planet, but as the countries of the former East Bloc are only too aware of, depopulation brings a host of problems of its own.