Population, Education, and the Environment
By Mandy Gatewood
“The growth in population is very much bound up with poverty, and in turn poverty plunders the earth. When human groups are dying of hunger, they eat everything: grass, insects, everything. They cut down the trees, they leave the land dry and bare. All other concerns vanish. That’s why in the next thirty years the problems we call ‘environmental’ will be the hardest that humanity has to face.”
–14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso
This quote by the Dalai Lama may be referencing either Cambodia’s past or the grimmest prospect for its future. In 2000, Cambodia achieved rice self-sufficiency, but as the population grows, water, food, and land become critical issues. Water tables on every continent are falling, and water shortages mean food shortages and increased incidences of disease. Cambodians already suffer from the ill effects of unsuitable water used for growing crops, drinking, cooking, and cleanliness. They must use water for these needs although the water contains arsenic, e. coli, viruses, and other bacteria. According to Resource Development International, one in five Cambodian children will die before the age of five, and the number one killer is diarrhea caused by bacteria in water and on food.
Cambodia also has one of the highest rates of deforestation in the world, with 75% of its forest lost since the end of the 1990s. As a result, over-farmed and unsustainably managed lands become less fertile and productive, requiring more land and yielding less food. Furthermore, without the development of alternative fuel sources, Cambodians will continue to deforest the land for firewood for cooking and timber for building.
One of the major causes of these environmental and social problems is the rapidly growing population. When Pol Pot seized control of Cambodia in 1975, the country’s population was estimated to be 7.3 million people. Over the next four years, between 25% and 30% of all Cambodians died as the population was decimated by widespread starvation, forced labor, and political executions. Since the end of the Khmer Rouge period in 1979, the population has nearly doubled, reaching 14 million in 2006. According to the World Resources Institute, each couple typically has four or five children. 40% of Cambodians are under the age of 15, and the country’s median age is 21.3, according to the 2007 CIA Factbook.
A population boom in a country without infrastructure to manage such growth can precipitate environmental and educational disasters. High fertility rates and little or no access to contraception can actually “outpace economic and development gains and stall poverty reduction efforts,” says the United Nations Population Fund (UNPF). However, this doesn’t mean doomsday prophecies for Cambodia. According to the UNPF, young populations offer great potential for development but only if countries invest wisely in the education, health, skills, and economic opportunities for youth.
As the population grows, Cambodia faces the difficult task of expanding its already overtaxed education and health services to meet their needs. PEPY is proud to be part of the push to extend education and health to Cambodia’s rural youth. In a country where UNDP estimates that less than 30% of students proceed to secondary school, we offer rural children opportunities and incentives to continue their studies. Our work with the Bike-to-School Program ensures that students who otherwise couldn’t access secondary school have the means to do so, and serves, along with PEPY-sponsored visits to Angkor Wat, as incentives for students to stay in school. These students will comprise Cambodia’s future and will develop the tools to make environmental and health decisions that stabilize and improve Cambodia.
Cambodia is already looking ahead to curb its population and protect the educational, environmental, and social gains it has made in the past years. In 2004, the country’s first National Population Policy was launched. Education is playing a forefront role in this plan to allow individuals to manage their reproductive choices, along with the extension of reproductive services and access to contraception nation-wide. While services are not yet available to all, the educational framework being laid in rural areas is setting the stage and creating an informed audience for these massive community education programs.
Poverty, health, environmental protection, and population are inextricably intertwined in developing countries. Here at PEPY, we hope that you’ll get involved by coming on a trip and strengthening educational infrastructure in Cambodia. Together, we can support and help create Cambodia’s future: an educated, stable population that respects and protects the environment.