UNITED NATIONS - The world's population - already at least 6.7 billion people - will double in the next 40 years if current growth rates are left unchecked, warns the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).
The effects of overpopulation are being felt across the globe, but the fastest growing regions are also some of the poorest. Sub-Saharan Africa has the most rapid overall growth, exacerbating existing problems like famine, disease and violent conflict over resources.
"What we see is countries like Kenya, which had stabilised its growth, are now growing faster again," Alex Ezeh, executive director of the Africa Population and Health Research Centre, told IPS. "By 2050 Kenya is projected to have 87 million people."
Kenya currently has a population of 39 million.
The countries with the fastest individual growth rates also have marked concentrations of urban poor populations, such as India, Pakistan, Nigeria and Indonesia.
"We are looking at tens of millions more mouths to feed, children to school, and people to house in the countries that are least able to accommodate that," Ezeh said.
While fertility rates overall have fallen in every region in the past 30 years, they have fallen the slowest in Africa.
A week ahead of the 20th anniversary of World Population Day on Jul. 11, UNFPA sponsored a three-day conference on access to family planning in developing countries.
Thirty experts in the field convened to discuss improving access to contraceptives and services to the world's poor. Family planning methods include birth control, emergency contraception, abortion, abstinence and sexual and reproductive health education.
UNFPA says family planning programmes are vital to boost women's economic and social well-being, especially during the current global economic crisis, and to reduce endemic poverty and high rates of maternal and infant death.
Despite the agreement of 179 countries on the importance of family planning at the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in 1994, the funding for family planning programmes targeted at the poor has stagnated over the past 15 years.
Some participants even suggested the ICPD agreement served as a false indicator of actual progress, providing justification for countries to pull resources from family planning programmes under the pretext of progress, thereby allowing the problem to fester.
"Because of the momentum of growth that has been created because of the past high levels of fertility we have seen since the ICPD, the people that will drive the population growth over the next 50 years are already alive today, they have been born," said Ezeh. "Now there needs to be a real sense of urgency."
"If we introduce effective family planning programmes now, we are able to actually forestall the continuing high rates of population growth 15, 20, 30 years from now," he went on.
"So the more we look at it and ask questions like 'oh, should we promote condoms?' or 'should we involve adolescents?' the worse situation is getting," he said. But curbing population growth was far from the only goal of the UNFPA conference.
"Family planning is important because it has been shown with absolutely no doubt to empower women," Fatima Mrisho of the Tanzania Commission for AIDS, who attended the conference, told IPS.
"It gives women more opportunities for development, it makes herself as an individual survive better, it makes her children survive better, but as importantly, it also improves the general condition of a country," she stressed.
Worldwide, over 500,000 women die every year during pregnancy and childbirth, many of them from preventable or treatable medical problems. And for every death, another 20 women suffer lifelong injuries and disabilities.
Maternal mortality rates in Africa are at least 100 times those in developed countries.
The conference cited the HIV/AIDS pandemic as another important factor in family planning needs. Both family planning and HIV/AIDS programmes seek increased sexual and reproductive health education and condom distribution to primarily young and poor populations.
"HIV has been a curse, but I think one positive aspect about it is the fact that is has to a large extent de-mystified the issues of sex and opened up and allowed sex and sexuality issues to come to the table much more," Mrisho told IPS.
Family planning is not only important for less developed countries but for marginalised communities within countries as well.
Indigenous populations have some of the most acute needs of family planning programmes, and also have the least access to it.
"Physicians believe that indigenous women do not want to plan their families because they do not understand the language, they do not understand the culture," said Nadine Gasman, who heads UNFPA in Guatemala. "But when you ask these women, they want."
Indigenous people still make up a large population in many parts of the world, particularly Latin America. According to UNFPA, more than half of indigenous girls have a pregnancy before age 20.
There is a high demand for family planning services, but also a lack of culturally appropriate family planning education materials and services in indigenous areas.
"We need to do our homework because indigenous women have specific beliefs and needs and these need to be taken into account," said Gasman.
"One Quechuan women told me there is a set number of babies in your body when you are born and using contraceptives will kill those babies. What we must understand is people with these beliefs can be very intelligent and even educated," she explained.
"We need to take anthropology into account. There is no recipe or magic bullet, but family planning can fit into their world view, and there is a real demand."
Much of the conference focused on providing clear, abundant and accurate information to communities that are difficult to reach so that women can make informed decisions for themselves.
Another common theme was the struggle to involve men in family planning programmes.
Many family planning programmes are work-based, inadvertently targeting men since men make up a large percentage of the formal workforce in many countries. Yet men make up the vast minority of active participants in those programmes worldwide.
The challenge is appealing to men and increasing the understanding that family planning is not a women's issue but is relevant to men as well.
"Sports," Mrisho said with a smile. "Sports that attract young, old, usually men but also women. And increasingly we have effective examples of using sports, particularly football in Africa, to try to link men with sexual reproductive health programmes."
"The world needs to know that family planning is alive and kicking and is ready for expansion for services for young people for older people for women of reproductive ages, for married, for unmarried, for people in prisons, for people in offices," she went on.
"I wish I could say family planning for all by the end of the next five years," Mrisho said.