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Africa's Expected Population Bulge Threatens Future Sustainability


While experts worry about a decline in much of the industrialized world's population, sub-Saharan Africa is among the few places where the population is expected to grow dramatically over the next 50 years. VOA's Catherine Maddux reports on what is being done to help ease the social and economic pressures of overpopulation in Africa.

First, the numbers: by the year 2050, demographers predict there will be 1.7 billion people living in sub-Saharan Africa.

That's up from the current population estimate of 752 million, according to the Population Reference Bureau.

That means in terms of percentages, the population of sub-Saharan Africa is widely expected to make a staggering leap from just over 12 percent to about 20 percent of the world's total population.

John May is Senior Population Specialist with the World Bank. He says despite a new awareness and great efforts by African governments, the continent is a latecomer - indeed, the last region in world to begin to seriously address overpopulation.

"But it is like a runner on a treadmill and they are running very fast and faster and faster," he said. "But unfortunately, the treadmill is running even faster than they are but population growth is so fast and so rapid in many ways that they cannot just cope with the challenge of providing services, especially in education, health and, also, employment to their population.

Especially huge growth is expected in Nigeria - already Africa's most populous nation at an estimated 129 million people - Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Other nations on demographer's lists: Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, Somalia and Uganda.

So, why exactly is Africa set to experience such a huge population bulge?

"African birthrates are the highest in the world. It's due to a variety of factors, certainly the desire for large numbers of children," said Carl Haub, a demographer with the Population Reference Bureau.

"The fact that the population is very rural, is still dependent on the land. And governments in Africa have not been very efficient in making contraceptive services and reproductive health services available to the general population. And in part because it is difficult. It is a difficult logistical exercise."

Haab says this bulge is coming despite high morbidity rates due to AIDS, currently ravaging much of the continent, most especially in South Africa where the vast majority of HIV-infected people in the world live. He also says massive population growth paradoxically assumes there will be a decline in fertility rates in some African nations.

When talking about overpopulation, demographers speak of this phenomenon: the so-called "global demographic transition." That is the transformation of populations from short lives and large families to longer lives and smaller families.

And this has not yet happened in Africa, a fact that has experts warning about how overpopulation will add monumental pressures to countries that are already too poor to provide basic services.

"One of the consequences is the tremendous challenges is to take care and to provide social services to this growing population," said Fama Hane Ba, Director of the Africa Division at the United Nation's Population Fund. "And I think that one of the major responsibilities of governments is to look at those trends and to integrate into their development plans and programs these current population trends so that they can plan well ahead of time for the social services like education, health. But it's also to create the economic opportunities and livelihood opportunities and employment opportunities to be able to find jobs and take care of their families."

Experts say issues like food security, housing and public transportation are also major concerns when populations grow at such a furious pace.

Take the example of Niger, which, at an average of eight children per woman, now has the highest fertility rate in the world.

John May of the World Bank has begun to work with Niger on ways to reduce that number. The key, he says, is family planning. And that means making sure people in rural areas have access to contraceptives.

"I did a long trip in Niger with the minister of population and we went all over the country to really meet the communities and have meetings," he said. "And when you talk to communities and really listen to them, they really want change. But they don't have the services. And often the women are not empowered to make their decisions. So I think the key question for the governments and those of us who are working with the governments in how to engage those rural areas."

May says on the policy level, the government of Niger is going to begin providing free contraceptive services to the public. He says it has also made a commitment to raising the legal age of marriage, which is now 14 years old for girls.

Fama Hane Ba of the U.N. Population Fund says one strategy is getting powerful local African community and religious leaders involved. She says it begins with a conversation about the problem.

"And, then, the next step is to ask them: don't they think that there is something that needs to be done? And we do believe you have a role to play because you are community leaders," she said. "And we know that you care about the situation of your population and the future of your population. So what do you think that you can do? And, believe me, they come up with very concrete proposals and they commit themselves and they are very, very active in all the countries that we've been working with them."

And Ba says, in some cases, they are much more effective than external actors such as United Nations, World Bank or non-governmental officials in getting out the message and breaking down cultural barriers that often keep African women uneducated and un-empowered regarding their own fertility.

But even such intensive efforts to slow the rate of births does not have the ability to stop what demographers know is coming over the next 50 years in Africa.

"Demographic momentum is such that you can't simply change something overnight," said demographer Carl Haub. "Whatever goal you might set, you have to start doing something about it about a generation ahead of time."

And that is because overpopulation is a truly complex problem, tied to a wide range of other issues - contraception, education, poverty, health - the very same issues that many African nations continue to struggle with everyday.

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