UNFPA Pacific Sub-Regional Office

Population and Development

Date: 20/07/2013

All of the 15 Pacific Island Countries (PICs) have small numbers of population. Even Papua New Guinea's population of seven million is small on a global scale. But from a Pacific perspective, Papua New Guinea and Fiji, with some 850,000 inhabitants, are large. Together they account for some 80 percent of the total population of the 15 PICs. Six of the 15 PICs have populations of less than 20,000 people.

Despite these low population numbers, there are places in the Pacific that have very high population densities. Ebeye in the Marshall Islands is an example, as is South Tarawa in Kiribati and Funafuti in Tuvalu. In fragile atoll environments such as these, high population densities challenge water supply systems, sanitation, and solid waste management and present serious environmental and health risks.

Small population sizes and dispersion over vast areas are both a curse and a blessing. They are a curse because of the diseconomies of scale, which hamper development efforts. Transport costs are high and markets are small. Industrialization remains minimal. Specialist human resources are few. These factors cause many Pacific islanders to rely on subsistence activities, outside the monetary economy. Strong family, clan or tribal ties form effective social safety nets. The environmental richness of the region still remains largely intact. All these contribute to Pacific islanders' resilience to external shocks.

Migration has been a way of life for Pacific islanders and to this day, migration affects the growth and distribution of Pacific populations. The modern-day dimension of this is urbanization, movement from the outer islands or rural areas to the urban centers. In most Melanesian and Polynesian countries, urban population growth is much higher than that of the rural population; most Micronesian countries already have high percentages of their population living in urban areas.

Part of the Marshall Islands government mobile team leave Aur Village, on Aur Atoll.

International migration is keeping overall population growth in the Pacific relatively low. In fact, many of the smaller Pacific countries are concerned about the steady outflow of their population to places like Australia and New Zealand. In this context, the migrants are typically of working ages and tend to be more skilled. While remittances support family members "back home" and contribute significantly to the national GDP as is the case in Tonga, traditional social support mechanisms are being threatened.

While fertility rates in the Pacific have declined over the past several decades, they remain relatively high in most Pacific populations. Unmet need for family planning remains an issue for some Pacific Island Countries, especially among the young and disadvantaged. Indeed, there are signs that the fertility declines are stagnating around 3.5-4 children per woman. Some analysts believe that this is inspired by the prospects for old age care: two children will migrate, and two will stay back to take care of their elders.

The continued high fertility rates in many Pacific countries result in large numbers of young people who require education and job opportunities. When these do not match the demand, undesirable consequences such as crime and social unrest may result. Such is already evident in some of the Melanesian countries. The high teenage fertility rates and incidence of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), evident in many PICs, may also be linked to poor education and unemployment.

UNFPA's thematic area of Population and Development focuses on analyzing and interpreting the statistics that describe these population dynamics, linking them to development processes, and advising policy makers accordingly.

Emerging issues like climate change are contributing to the population dynamics of small Pacific islands developing countries. This is a portion of the lagoon side of Tarawa where seawater inundation is becoming a norm.