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Half a Billion Tanzanians?

I was one of five children, so I am in an invidious position when I write about population growth. That was quite normal at the time where I grew up, but I and my brothers and sisters have had a total of only ten children, so we’re down to replacement level in this generation. This is not happening in Tanzania.

“Women can now throw away their contraceptives,” said Tanzania’s President John Magufuli last Sunday. Secondary education is now free in the East African country, he pointed out, so children are no longer such a major expense. Tanzania needs more people, and women who don’t have more babies are just lazy.

“They do not want to work hard to feed a large family, and that is why they opt for birth control and end up with one or two children only,” Magufuli continued. “I have travelled in Europe and elsewhere and have seen the harmful effects of birth control.”

This is not really a problem in Tanzania, where the average woman has more than five children. The population has grown at a steady 3% for decades, and since independence in 1961 it has increased sixfold, from 10 million to 60 million. There is no sign of the birth-rate dropping, and the country is on course for 100 million in less than 20 years.

Yet President Magufuli thinks women should throw away their contraceptives because the country needs more people. He is not alone in this conviction. President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda (which has about the same birth-rate as Tanzania) once told me that his country could easily feed 100 million people. He called the country’s population explosion “a great resource”.

Uganda’s population at independence in 1962 was just 7 million people. It’s now 45 million, and will reach that 100 million target in about 30 years – and there is no reason to believe that it will stop there. Uganda’s birth-rate has not dropped in decades either.

The end-of century predictions for these countries if birth rates gradually drop towards replacement level, as they did in Asia and Latin America in the past 50 years, is around 300 million each. But if the birth rates don’t drop in future decades (as they have not dropped in past decades), then these two countries alone will have a billion people in 2100. That’s a very bad idea.

Tanzania and Uganda together have about twice the area of France, which has only 65 million people. They would, with a billion people, be about eight times more densely populated than France – and unlike France, the great majority of their people would still be poor. The long-term economic growth rate in both countries is about 3% and their population growth rate is exactly the same, so most people stay poor.

And still John Magufuli wants to get the birth rate up. He presumably believes that a bigger population makes a country stronger, but if that were true Tanzania would already be as powerful as France. Five or ten times its current population will make it weaker, not stronger. It will also ruin the environment and leave a lot of people hungry

Magufuli has won popularity throughout East Africa with his flamboyant campaign against corruption. He is also a thin-skinned authoritarian who had banned street protests, closed down two radio stations for “sedition”, and brought charges against at least ten people for “insulting” him on social media platforms, but a recent opinion poll in Tanzania gave him 96% support.

Hardly anybody in Tanzania sees curbing population growth as a priority, and it’s certainly not a vote-winner. Indeed, this is true for sub-Saharan Africa as a whole, and those who point out that it really is a problem that could ruin the continent’s future are frequently accused of neo-colonial or racist attitudes. But there are a few bright spots, and one of them is on the other side of Africa, in Ghana.

Ghana’s population was 5 million at independence in 1957; now it’s 30 million. But with great effort it has now got its ‘total fertility’ down to four children per woman, and if the birth rate continues to fall the prediction is for ‘only’ 73 million people at the end of the century. Dr Leticia Adelaide Appiah thinks this is still too many.

Dr Appiah is the Executive Director of Ghana’s National Population Council, and a very brave woman. She has proposed that women should be restricted to having three children, and denied access to free government services if they exceed that number. It’s a long way short of China’s one-child-per-family policy (now abandoned), but at least it addresses the problem.

She has faced a storm of criticism for her proposal (almost all of it from men), but she has stood her ground. There is little prospect that Ghana will actually adopt such a policy in the immediate future, but Africa needs more women like her. Urgently.
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 10. (“Tanzania…poor”; and “Magufuli…support”)

Zika: Don’t Panic

Zika, the mosquito-borne virus spreading through the Americas that has been linked to thousands of babies born with underdeveloped brains (microcephaly), is just the latest new disease to spread panic around the world. And wait! News just in that it can be sexually transmitted too!

There is real cause for concern here. The virus is almost bound to spread to the rest of the world, except those parts with winters severe enough to kill off the two species of mosquito that bear it, Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopicti. And these mosquitos are active during the day (unlike the Anopheles mosquitos that spread the malaria parasite), so insecticide-treated bed nets don’t offer much protection.

The World Health Organisation has declared a global public health emergency, and the media panic is building: first AIDS, now this. We are too many, we travel too much, and new pandemics are Nature’s retaliation for our many sins. Clearly the apocalypse is upon us.

Well, no, actually. New diseases have been devastating human populations for at least three thousand years, but no modern pandemic compares with the Antonine Plague of the 2nd century CE, the Justinian Plague of the 6th century, or the Black Death of the 14th century, each of which killed between a quarter and a half of the populations affected.

The worst pandemic of relatively modern times was the “Spanish Flu” outbreak of 1918-19, which killed between three and five percent of the world’s people. It was bad, but it hardly compares with the older plagues.

The slow-moving Aids epidemic has killed about 30 million people since the 1980s, or less than half of one percent of the world’s current population. Two million people died of AIDS in the peak year of 2005, but the number of deaths in 2015 was only 1.2 million. New infections are also falling.

And Zika? So far as we know, it doesn’t kill anybody – apart from some of the microcephalic babies, about a quarter of whom die because their brains are too small to control their bodily functions. The majority, who do survive, face intellectual disability and development delays

Four-fifths of the adults who are infected experience no symptoms whatever, and the fever in those who do usually burns out in less than a week. Nor does the Zika virus remain in the body permanently: women who have been infected are advised to wait six month before becoming pregnant (although many will probably choose to wait longer).

Zika has been around for quite a while. It was first identified in monkeys in Uganda in 1947, and the first human case was detected in Nigeria in 1954. It gradually spread east across Asia, and started crossing the Pacific early in this century. But by the time it reached Brazil last year, it had suddenly mutated into a form that causes microcephaly in some of the babies of infected mothers.

The link between Zika and microcephaly is only statistical for the moment, but it is pretty convincing. Brazil had only 150 cases of microcephaly in 2014, but it has had more than 4,000 cases in the past four months, and the Zika virus has been found in the brains of some of the afflicted babies.

This recent mutation in the Zika virus is not part of the endless seesaw battle between viruses and human immune systems. It is just a random event. It doesn’t even make Zika more infectious and thereby serve the “purposes”, so to speak, of the virus. It just has this deeply unfortunate side-effect of damaging the development of human embryos. And these days we have ways of dealing with it.

Infectious diseases were probably not a problem for our pre-civilised distant ancestors, but since we began living in dense populations highly infectious diseases have been civilisation’s constant companions. And for most of our history we had no way of controlling these diseases except quarantine.

In the past century, however, science has begun to get on top of the problem. Killer flu epidemics are still possible because the highly unstable influenza virus can mutate faster than we can create and mass-produce the appropriate vaccine, but smallpox has been eradicated and polio is on the brink of extinction: new polio cases have fallen 99 percent in the past 25 years, and Africa is now entirely polio-free.

Even the ancient scourge of malaria (not a viral disease) is in retreat. Deaths from malaria have halved in the past fifteen years, and the new “gene-drive” technology opens up the prospect of eventual eradication of the disease

Now that Zika has become a problem researchers have started working on a vaccine, and in due course one will almost certainly become available. Another approach may be to target the species that propagate it by releasing genetically modified sterile mosquitoes to reduce the size of the insect population. It will take time, and it may be necessary to use both approaches, but we are not facing a permanent global threat.

The glass is not half-empty. It is half-full, and still filling up.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 10. (“The link…with it”)

Update: Drums Along the Nile

3 June 2013

Drums Along the Nile

By Gwynne Dyer

Beware the open mike. On Tuesday Egypt’s President Mohammed Morsi summoned senior politicians of all parties to discuss Ethiopia’s plan to dam the main tributary of the Nile river. One proposed sending special forces to destroy the dam. Another thought buzzing the dam site with jet fighters might scare the Ethiopians off.

Ayman Nour, a former presidential candidate and a more sophisticated player, suggested that Egypt support rebel groups fighting the Ethiopian regime. “This could yield results in the diplomatic arena,” he said. And none of them realised that their discussion was being broadcast live by Egyptian state television.

All students of geopolitics are familiar with the legend that Egypt has privately warned the governments upstream on the Nile that it will start bombing if they build dams on the river without its permission. The truth of that story is about to be tested.

Last month Ethiopia started diverting the waters of the Blue Nile in order to build the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, a $4.7 billion, 6,000-megawatt hydroelectric project that is the centrepiece of the country’s plan to become Africa’s largest exporter of power. Egypt instantly objected, for it depends utterly on irrigation water from the Nile to grow its food.

Even now Egypt must import almost 40 percent of its food, and the population is still growing fast. If the amount of water coming down the Nile diminishes appreciably, Egyptians will go hungry.

A treaty signed in 1929 gave 90 percent of the Nile’s water to the downstream countries, Egypt and Sudan, even though all the water in the river starts as rain in the upstream countries: Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi. That caused no problems at the time, but now Egypt is using all of its share of the water – and the upstream countries are starting to use the water for irrigation too.

The Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is the first real test of Egypt’s tolerance for upstream dam-building. The reservoir will take 63 million cubic metres of water to fill; Egypt’s annual share of the Nile’s water is 55.5 million cubic metres. So even if Ethiopia takes five years to fill the reservoir, that will mean 20 percent cuts in the water Egypt receives from the Nile for five years. And even after that there will be a large annual loss to evaporation.

The dam that was getting the Egyptian politicians worked up is just the start. Ethiopia plans to spend a total of $12 billion on dams on the Blue Nile for electricity and irrigation, and Uganda is negotiating with China for financing for a 600-megawatt dam on the White Nile. More dams and irrigation projects will follow – and the upstream states are in no mood to let Egypt exercise its veto under the 1929 treaty.

That treaty was imposed when all the countries involved except Ethiopia were under British rule, and it reflected Britain’s big investment in Egypt. In 2010 the upstream countries signed a Cooperative Framework Agreement to seek more water from the River Nile, effectively rejecting the colonial-era treaty and demanding that Egypt relinquish its veto and accept a lower water quota.

That’s not going to happen. Mohammed Allam, Egypt’s minister of water resources under President Hosni Mubarak when the upstream states signed their agreement three years ago, warned that “Egypt reserves the right to take whatever course it sees suitable to safeguard its share.” The post-revolutionary Egyptian government cannot afford to be less firm in defending Egypt’s interests.

The issue will probably be kicked down the road for a couple of years, because the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam will not be completed until 2015 at the earliest. But there is big trouble for Egypt (and Sudan) further down the road.

By 2025, a dozen years from now, Egypt will be trying to feed 96 million people, which would be very hard even with its existing giant’s share of the Nile’s water and all its current food imports. The countries that signed the Cooperative Framework Agreement will have 300 million people, so by then they will also be extracting very large amounts of water from the Nile Basin for irrigation.

Without that water, Egypt’s only options are beggaring itself with massive food imports (until the foreign exchange runs out), or famine. Unless, of course, it decides on war – but its options are not very good on that front either.

Not only are the upstream countries a very long way from Egypt (the Nile is the world’s longest river), but they will have strong support from China, which is financing most of the dams they are now building or planning.

Egypt, by contrast, has repudiated its former American ally, and may find that the US is reluctant to re-engage even if the government in Cairo can overcome its own distaste for Washington. Why would the United States want a confrontation with China over Egypt?

So there probably won’t be a war. And Egypt will probably face an apocalyptic food shortage in ten or fifteen years.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 10. (“The Great…evaporation”; and “That’s not…interests”)



Ethiopia: Population, Famine and Fate

1 September 2009

Ethiopia: Population, Famine and Fate

By Gwynne Dyer

A quarter-century after a million Ethiopians died in the great hunger of 1984-85, the country is heading into another famine. The spring rains failed entirely, and the summer rains were three weeks late. But why is famine is stalking Ethiopia again?

The Ethiopian government is authoritarian, but it isn’t incompetent. It gives fertilizer to farmers and teaches best practices. By the late 90s the country was self-sufficient in food in good years, and the government had created a strategic food reserve for the bad years.

So why are we back here again? Infant deaths are already over two per 10,000 per day in Somali, the worst-hit region of Ethiopia. (Four per day counts as full-scale famine.) Country-wide, 20 percent of the population already depends on the dwindling flow of foreign food aid, and it will get worse for many months yet. What have the Ethiopians done wrong?

The real answer (which everybody carefully avoids) is that they have had too many babies. Ethiopia’s population at the time of the last famine was 40 million. Twenty-five years later, it is 80 million. You can do everything else right – give your farmers new tools and skills, fight erosion, create food reserves – and if you don’t control the population, you are just spitting into the wind.

It is so obvious that this should be the start of every conversation about the country. Even if the coming famine in Ethiopia kills a million people, the population will keep growing. So the next famine, ten or fifteen years from now, will hit a country of a hundred million people, trying to make a living from farming on land where only 40 million faced starvation in the 1980s. It is going to get much uglier in Ethiopia.

Yet it’s practically taboo to say that. The whole question of population, instead of being central to the debate about development, about food, about climate change, has been put on ice. The reason, I think, is that the rich countries are secretly embarrassed, and the poor countries are deeply resentful.

Suppose that Ethiopia had been the first country to industrialise. Suppose some mechanical genius in Tigray invented the world’s first steam engine in 1710. The first railways were spreading across the country by the 1830s, and at the same time Ethiopian entrepreneurs and imperialists spread all over Africa. By the end of the 19th century, they controlled half of Europe too.

Never mind the improbabilities. The point is that an Ethiopia with such a history would easily be rich enough to support 80 million people now – and if it could not grow enough food for them all, it would just import it. Just like Britain (where the industrial revolution actually started) imports food. Money makes everything easy.

In 1710, when Thomas Newcomen devised the first practical steam engine in Devonshire, the population of Britain was just 7 million. It is now 61 million, but they do not live in fear of famine. In fact, they eat very well, even though they currently import over a third of their food. They got in first, so although they never worried in the slightest about population growth, they got away with it.

Ethiopia has more than four times the land surface of Britain. The rain is less reliable, but a rich Ethiopia would have no trouble feeding its people. The problem is that it got the population growth without the wealth. Stopping the population growth now would be very hard, but otherwise famine will be a permanent resident in another twenty years.

The problem is well understood. The population of the rich countries has grown about tenfold since the earliest days of the industrial revolution, but for the first half of that period it grew quite slowly. Many babies died, and there were no cures for most epidemic diseases. Later the death rate dropped, but by then, with people feeling more secure in their lives, the birth rate was dropping too.

Whereas in most of the poor countries the population hardly grew at all until the start of the 20th century . But once the population did start to grow, thanks to basic public health measures that cut the death rate, it grew faster than it ever did in the rich countries.

Unfortunately, economies don’t grow that fast, so these countries never achieved the level of comfort and security where most people will start to reduce their family size spontaneously. At the current rate of growth, Ethiopia’s population will double again, to 160 million people, in just 32 years.

You’re thinking: that will never happen. Famine will become normal in Ethiopia well before that. No combination of wise domestic policies, and no amount of foreign aid, can stop it. And you are right.

What applies to Ethiopia applies to many other African countries, including some that do not currently have famines. Uganda, for example, had five million people at independence in 1960. It now has 32 million, and at the current growth rate it will have 130 million by 2050. Uganda is only the size of Oregon (New Zealand, Ecuador, Romania, Laos).

History is unfair. Conversations between those who got lucky and those left holding the other end of the stick are awkward. But we cannot go on ignoring the elephant in the room. We have to start talking about population again.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 15. (“Ethiopia…years”; 20and “What…Laos”)