“We need to protect our oceans as if our lives depend on it, because they do.”

That was the message brought by Dr. Sylvia Earle from National Geographic to last week’s Eighth Open Working Group (OWG) on Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) at the United Nations, where governments of 69 countries came together to discuss the theme of “oceans, forests and biodiversity.”

The pollution of our oceans is growing and loss of forests and biodiversity is increasing. With 7 billion people living in this world, each requiring resources from nature, population dynamics need to be considered as a major factor when looking at responses to environmental degradation.

The presenters at the Open Working Group urged delegates to recognize that oceans, forests and biodiversity are not just resources to be used, but engines of sustainable development. Losing them would result in the end of humankind.

As the population continues to grow, fish catches have been declining in Lake Chilwa, Southern Malawi.

As the population continues to grow, fish catches have been declining in Lake Chilwa, Southern Malawi.

For me, the message echoed my firsthand experience. I live in Malawi, where the population has tripled over the past 40 years and 85 percent of people depend on natural resources for their daily needs. But over-exploitation of natural resources and environmental degradation is rapidly changing Malawi’s landscapes. Fish catches in Malawi’s lakes have been declining and over-fishing, compounded by increasing population, is part of the problem.

This population growth is mostly driven by high fertility, which has declined modestly from 7.2 children per woman in 1970 to 5.7 children per woman today. Malawi is one of 15 population and climate change “hotspots” characterized by a high population growth rate, a high projected decline in agricultural production, and low resilience to climate change. There is increasing demand for smaller families, and use of modern contraception increased from 13 percent in 1992 to 46 percent in 2010. Still, 27 percent of married women who want to prevent or delay pregnancy lack modern contraception.

Family planning and reproductive health are critical components of strategies that promote environmental sustainability. Couples who can plan their own childbearing are better able to manage other aspects of their lives, including use of natural resources. This is critical to the preservation of oceans, forests, mountains and biodiversity, and essential if we hope to continue to meet the needs of humans, especially those living in rural areas who depend on these resources.

The connections between population dynamics, reproductive health and rights, the environment, and sustainable development are therefore important to understand. Population dynamics are of great importance for securing integrated global sustainable development, as was acknowledged at the discussions at the Open Working Group.

As we develop the post-2015 agenda, truly sustainable development goals must take population into account as an important driver of environmental change. Sustainable management of oceans, forests and biodiversity is a population issue—and one that we urgently need to deal with. Prioritizing universal access to sexual and reproductive health and rights, including family planning, is one step we can take now to help create a more sustainable future. The time is ripe for action. Recognizing the important role that women play in achieving sustainable development cannot be ignored.

Deepa Pullanikkatil is a civil engineer turned environmental manager who has worked in India, Lesotho and Malawi for the past 13 years. At LEAD Malawi, a PAI partner organization, she manages projects on population and environment linkages as well as integrating ecosystems approach into development planning.