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By 2045 global population is projected to reach nine billion. Can the planet take the strain?

Distribution and density

People are not evenly distributed over the earth’s surface. Some places are crowded whilst other have hardly any people. This is due to both physical and human factors. Physical factors such as relief, soils and climate can encourage high densities of population. Densely populated areas are likely where there are areas of low, flat land with fertile soils and a temperate climate. However, where the climate is very hot, or very cold, where there are high mountains or deserts, the environment is hostile to people and these areas are often only sparsely populated.


Places with few people and a low population density are said to be sparsely populated.


Places that are crowded and have a high population density are said to be densely populated.


Population density – physical factors
Reasons for high density

Relief – Lowland areas which are flat are easier to farm and build settlements and transport links

Climates – Moderate climates with enough rain and warm temperatures to allow crops to grow and ripen e.g. W. Europe & Japan.

Soil – Thick fertile such as loams and alluvium promote agricultural production such as S.E. England.

Vegetation – Areas of open woodland and grassland are easy to settle in. e.g. The Pampas in Argentina.

Accessibility – Coastal areas with easy access to transport and trade

Resources – Plenty of water, timber, minerals such as coal, oil and copper enable countries to develop. e.g. Western Europe & Eastern America.


Reasons for low density

Relief – Mountainous areas are too steep to farm easily and are difficult to build on and get around easily.

Climates – Very cold, very hot and too dry affect the growing season and make cultivation impossible – also unpleasant to live in such areas. e.g. The Arctic, Sahara Desert, etc.

Soil – Thin, rocky and acidic soils all result in low agricultural production such as hot deserts and mountainous areas.

Vegetation – Very dense jungle and swamps make it difficult to penetrate and use productively. e.g. Amazon Rainforest.

Accessibility – Interior areas of large continents such as Africa and Asia struggle to develop

Resources – Few economic resources make it difficult for a country to trade with other countries.


Population density human factors
Reasons for high density

Economic – Large rich markets for trade, good infrastructure such as roads, railways etc as well as a skilled and varied labour force

Social – Some groups of people prefer to live together for security and friendship such as Europeans, Japanese etc

Political – Stable and fair government – usually democracies such as W. Europe, Singapore etc


Reasons for low density

Economic – Poor trading links and markets, poor infrastructure with few roads and services such as Central Africa, Amazon Basin and limited job opportunities for the inhabitants

Social – Some groups of people prefer to be more isolated such as Scandinavians

Political – Unstable governments and civil wars – in such areas as Afghanistan, Zimbabwe and the Sudan.


Population growth

The initial growth of the population was slow (1750 – 1950) however since then it has rapidly grown. Estimates suggest that at present the growth is at 90 million people each year.

Population growth throughout the world has not been even. It has been more rapid in some countries than in others. The graph above highlights that growth in the LIC (developing) has been a lot faster. Growth in the HICs (industrialised) is now very slow.


Population change

Population change mainly rests on natural increase which is the difference between birth rate and death rate. The birth rate is the average number of births per 1000 people. The death rate is the average number of deaths per 1000 people.


The demographic transition model


The demographic transition model shows how changes in birth and death rates can affect population growth. It also identifies 5 stages of growth which countries can pass through these stages are linked to economic development.

Population structures


The rate of natural increase, birth rate, death rate and life expectancy all affect the population structure of a country. These can all be portrayed through a population pyramid.
The stages above fit in with the stages of the demographic transition model.

Population pyramids are useful because they enable comparisons to be made between countries, and help to forecast future trends. This can help a country identify problems and plan for the future.
For example, an increase in younger people may mean more schools are needed whereas a growth in the elderly population could mean more residential homes will be needed.

They can be used to analyse how a country has changed over time and therefore make future adjustments. This is evident in the diagram below which looks at Japan over the last 100 years.


Key terms:

Life expectancy: average number of years a person is expected to live.

Dependants: people who rely on others of a working age (young and old dependants)

Infant mortality: the average number of children per 1000 born alive, who die before the age of 1.

Economically active: those people that work and receive a wage.

Population trends


Estimating future trends is difficult however looking at future patterns allows us to plan for the future and make plans which will be essential to our survival. We are witnessing a huge increase in global population numbers and this I turn is creating challenges for us like shortages of food and other basic needs.

Changing population structures

There are two population trends that significantly stand out – youthful population (increasing number of the population under the age of 15) and ageing populations (increasing number of people over the age of 65)

Youthful population LICs


The high birth rate in LICs results in a high proportion of the population under 15. This youthful population gives a country specific problems.
The problems include:
Young children need health care – for example, immunisations. This is expensive for a country to provide.
Young people need to be educated – providing schools and teachers are expensive. Resources for lessons are difficult to access, and costly to buy.
In the future, more children will reach child bearing age, putting more pressure on the health service.
To try and sort out the problems associated with a youthful population anti-natalist policies are introduced. These policies encourage people through laws to have less children eg China’s One Child Policy.

Ageing populations HICs


Most HICs are experiencing slow rates of population growth and some are experiencing population decline. Most HICs are in stage 4 of the demographic transition model – the population is high, but not growing. Some countries have a declining population and could be said to be entering stage 5. This means that the birth rate in their country has fallen below the death rate. Most LICs have a very low rate of natural increase.
The average life expectancy in HICs is rising. This is due to:
improvements in health care and medicine
increased leisure and recreation time
improved knowledge about the importance of a balanced diet and regular exercise
improved living standards and quality of life

Birth rates in HICs are falling as people choose to have smaller families later in life. Contraception is easily available and well understood.

An ageing population
As people live longer, the structure of a population changes.
Many HICs are now experiencing a significant increase in the number of elderly people as a proportion of the population.
As birth rates fall and people have smaller families, the number of young dependants is falling and the number of elderly dependants is rising.
In the near future this will mean that there are fewer economically active people to support the elderly population.
To try to balance out an ageing population, some countries adopt a pro-natalist policy – that is, they encourage people to have more children by offering them benefits, such as access to childcare and maternity leave.

Case study: China

In the late 1970s, the Chinese government introduced a number of measures to reduce the country’s birth rate and slow the population growth rate. The most important of the new measures was a one-child policy, which decreed that couples in China could only have one child.
In 1950 the rate of population change in China was 1.9 per cent each year. If this doesn’t sound high, consider that a growth rate of only 3 per cent will cause the population of a country to double in less than 24 years!
Previous Chinese governments had encouraged people to have a lot of children to increase the country’s workforce. But by the 1970s the government realised that current rates of population growth would soon become unsustainable.

The one-child policy

The one-child policy, established in 1979, meant that each couple was allowed just one child. Benefits included increased access to education for all, plus childcare and healthcare offered to families that followed this rule.

Problems with enforcing the policy:
Those who had more than one child didn’t receive these benefits and were fined.
The policy was keenly resisted in rural areas, where it was traditional to have large families.
In urban areas, the policy has been enforced strictly but remote rural areas have been harder to control.
Many people claim that some women, who became pregnant after they had already had a child, were forced to have an abortion and many women were forcibly sterilised. There appears to be evidence to back up these claims.

Impact of the policy
The birth rate in China has fallen since 1979, and the rate of population growth is now 0.7 per cent.
There have been negative impacts too – due to a traditional preference for boys, large numbers of female babies have ended up homeless or in orphanages, and in some cases killed. In 2000, it was reported that 90 per cent of foetuses aborted in China were female.
As a result, the gender balance of the Chinese population has become distorted. Today it is thought that men outnumber women by more than 60 million.


Long-term implications
China’s one-child policy has been somewhat relaxed in recent years. Couples can now apply to have a second child if their first child is a girl, or if both parents are themselves only-children.
While China’s population is now rising more slowly, it still has a very large total population (1.3 billion in 2008) and China faces new problems, including:
the falling birth rate – leading to a rise in the relative number of elderly people
fewer people of working age to support the growing number of elderly dependants – in the future China could have an ageing population.


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