(Statistics for Development Programme article published in Islands Business magazine, June 2011)
In June 2011 the population of the Pacific Islands is expected to reach a major milestone – 10 million.
This number is expected to continue its upward march, reaching 15 million by 2035, although there is considerable variety across the region, with some countries and territories even shrinking in population. The growth rate means that another 188,000 people – equivalent to the population of Samoa – are being added to the total each year.
It also means increased demand on already stretched transport, energy, health and education infrastructure, not to mention food and water supply, employment opportunities and housing. According to data provided to the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC) by its 22 island members, the region’s population has climbed steadily, totalling four million in 1970, six million in 1990, and eight million in 2000 (Figure 1). Detailed population information is available here, or on PRISM (Pacific Regional Information System) website at: www.spc.int/prism
Figure 1. Total Population of Pacific Island countries and territories, 1970-2050
For readers of Islands Business it may not be news that most people in the region live in Melanesia (8.8 million or 88%) compared to Polynesia (668,000 or 7%) and Micronesia (546,000 or 5%). But what is not so well known is the extent of the differences in the population numbers within the region – between subregions, countries and territories.
Papua New Guinea’s big numbers skew the picture (the country is home to 70% of the region’s inhabitants today and its population is expected to reach 10 million by 2030), making it important not to generalise across the region.
Melanesia’s population is growing by 2% a year, faster than that of Micronesia (1.5%) and Polynesia (0.7%).
The fastest growing countries and territories are Guam (2.7%), Solomon Islands (2.7%) and Vanuatu (2.6%), where high growth rates are due to high birth rates.
But some populations are shrinking. For example, the populations of Niue (-2.3%) and Tokelau (-0.2%) have declined due to continuous emigration to New Zealand. The population of Wallis and Futuna shrank by 1500 between 2003 and 2008 and that of Federated States of Micronesia by 4000 between 2000 and 2010. The population of Northern Mariana Islands was down marginally in 2011 due to closure of many of its garment factories.
The most densely populated countries and territories in 2010 were Nauru (485 people per square kilometre), Tuvalu (431), Guam (355), American Samoa (335), and Marshall Islands (304). Within countries, density varies considerably, with high density linked to social and health problems where there has been rapid urbanisation, for example in Kiribati.
The least densely populated countries are Niue (6 people per square kilometre), and the Melanesian countries of New Caledonia (14), Papua New Guinea (15), Solomon Islands (18), and Vanuatu (21).
What does all this mean? For a better idea of what’s going on we need to look at sub-regional population profiles (Figure 2).
Figure 2. Population profiles of Pacific subregions and Australia
With high birth and low life expectancy rates, Melanesia has a ‘youth explosion’ pyramid shape in its population profile. Forty per cent of the population of Papua New Guinea and 38% of that of Solomon Islands consist of children under 15 years.
Although they are not growing at the same rate, Polynesia and Micronesia also have large youth populations. Marshall Islands (42% of the population under 15 years), Samoa (38%) and Tonga (38%) top youth charts there.
Interestingly, both sub-region population profiles have ‘tighter waistlines’, with lower numbers in the 30–40 age group, indicating that more people in this group have migrated and/or are working overseas.
This is reflected in the higher age dependency ratios of natural resource-poor countries. The age dependency ratio is an indicator of the economic burden the productive portion of the population must carry.
With more than 80 dependent people per 100 ‘economically productive’ people, this ratio was highest in Tonga (85), the Marshall Islands (85), Samoa (83), and Tokelau (83). When combined with the lower numbers in the 30–40 age bracket, it indicates the impact of migration on the statistics and the importance of remittances.
The story is different in natural resource-richer and more populous Melanesian countries, where labour migration has had less of an impact on the bigger population numbers. How these countries develop their resources and whether expanding economies such as Australia and China draw on this pool of unskilled labour remains to be seen.
The highest proportions of people aged over 60 years are in Niue (16%), Wallis and Futuna (13%), Tokelau (12%), Cook Islands (12%), New Caledonia (12%) and Guam (11%). Excluding Pitcairn (50), the oldest median age levels are evident in Palau (35), Niue (34) and New Caledonia (31).
SPC demographers note that rapid population increases affect both the overall quality of life and the quality of vital services in health and education and are linked to high levels of infant and maternal mortality. They emphasise that it will take generations to slow the momentum of population growth in the region.
However, the level of fertility in the region has substantially declined from 40 years ago when women had on average 7–8 children. Today that average is less than 5 in all countries in the Pacific and there are only eight countries where women have more than 4 children on average.
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