Photo courtesy of Al Jazeera

Today is World Population Day

World Population Day is a day to raise awareness and focus on the urgency, importance and complexities of global population issues.

The day was first commemorated on July 11, 1987 as the  the day of five billion when the global population first crossed fivebillion people and it brought the focus of issues such as sustainable development, resource management and the dynamics of population expansion. In 1989, the United Nations Development Programme identified the necessity for a more focused approach to population issues and established the annual celebration of the date. The occasion serves as a platform to highlight the critical challenges associated with global population trends and their impact on sustainable development, health, and gender.

The current global population has crossed the 7.9 billion mark.

Sri Lanka faces major changes in its population dynamics with an increasingly ageing population and a decreasing birth rate.

The Census and Statistics Department also reports a notable decrease in the population in 2023, giving reasons for migration patterns, a decline in birth rates and increased mortality rates. The average annual population in 2023 decreased by 144,395 with comparison to 2022, given the drop in births, increase in deaths and rise in the numbers leaving the country.

Professor Lakshman Dissanayake of the University of Colombo believes the COVID-19 pandemic significantly impacted Sri Lanka’s population dynamics and its falling birth rates. This was due to the disruptions with delayed marriages and familyplanning decisions which were influenced by economic and health concerns in the country.

Another reason is the overall economic fluctuations of the country resulting in higher food and commodity pricing. According to the CSD, another 75% of households in the past year have limited their spending and cut down their household expenditure to cope with the effects of the economic crisis.  Birth rates may have been impacted in this case as children are an economic burden for parents without sufficient savings and, with fluctuating prices of the vast medical and personal needs required for a new parent and baby, bringing a child into this world is not an easy option for couples.

Another population demographic issue Sri Lanka faces was in just 15 years more than one in four or 25% of Sri Lankans will be over 60. An ageing population puts a strain on the workforce as the number of workers retiring will increase, placing an increasing burden on the public sector pension scheme. An ageing population puts a burden on the healthcare system. Life expectancy, which currently stands at 77 years in Sri Lanka, requires the elderly to seek increasingly specialised treatment and comprehensive care. A growing ageing population necessitates the expansion and availability of eldercare facilities across the country. Given the limited number of existing facilities, improving the quality and availability of these services will be essential to cope with the demands of an ageing population. Vulnerable groups who are not eligible for a pension may also look to find informal work due to their lack of income in retirement.

For economic progressions of growth, the heavy burden of the ageing population and declining birth rates stunt economic growth in a country. It may lead to a shrinking workforce, which reduces productivity, results in labour shortages and leads to skill gaps in the labour sector.

Some suggestions economists have given countries facing similar demographic struggles include providing pro-natal policies such as policies which ease the financial and social burden of having a child on the parents. Flexible work arrangements, affordable and quality childcare and adequate amounts of maternity and paternity leave are crucial factors encouraging the increase of the declining birth rate.

Another suggestion is accelerating the progress of the empowerment of women and girls which could help reduce the burden of fluctuating fertility rates and changing population sizes. The government must ensure girls’ education is protected and increasing the access to information and services related to their sexual and reproductive health and rights could address population change and build resilient societies. Suggestions include the promotion of workplace policies which support families who want to expand their families with flexible working hours and remote work options. Ensuring girls’ education is particularly important as it allows encourages women to balance career and familial responsibilities.

Experiences around the world from countries facing similar issues have shown that specific incentives and disincentives have only had a marginal impact on fertility rates. Taking into consideration social norms, climate change and economic challenges is crucial to creating a rational framework to attempt to move fertility rates in a direction.