At an estimated population of 77 million people, Ethiopia is second only to Nigeria - currently sub-Saharan Africa's most populous nation. And Ethiopia's population is growing at a rapid pace, adding some two million people every year. Experts are warning the Horn of Africa nation may not be prepared to handle the consequences of such a population boom.
Ethiopian scholar and population expert Sahlu Haile says the situation in his country is grim.
"Drought and famine continue to plaque the country," he said. "And although the government is investing a considerable amount of resources for social services, including health and education, this is being neutralized by the number of people needing these services. Deforestation, soil erosion and the resulting shortage of rain and water is creating conflict among people who have been living together peacefully for years."
By the year 2050, the Washington-based Population Reference Bureau says Ethiopia's population will grow by an astounding 120 percent.
That means in 44 years, the population of Ethiopia is expected to be around 169 million people.
It is this projection that has Sahlu, a senior program advisor at the Packard Foundation, worried - worried about the strain such huge population growth will put on society.
"The environment continues to deteriorate," he said. "Not only in the vulnerable areas of the highlands of northern Ethiopia but even in the south and southwest of the country, which are considered the breadbasket of the country. A senior government official said because of population pressure, they are obliged to apportion land, not in hectares, but in square meters. He said, and I quote, the situation is 'dramatic,' end quote."
David Shinn, a former U.S. Ambassador to Ethiopia, puts it this way.
"The greatest development problem facing Ethiopia is the population issue," he said.
Shinn says simply feeding Ethiopia is a major concern.
"If you're at more or less 77 million, you're adding two million more per year, that means you have to have a significant increase in the amount of cereals or food crops that you are growing just to feed the new additions," he said. "Today, Ethiopia has, in a good rain year, not a bad year, but a good rain year, a structural food deficit of somewhere between four and six million people."
And Shinn adds that during the 24-year period between 1980 to 2004, Ethiopia tragically suffered 15 years of poor rainfall. Drought resulted in low crop production and brought on the infamous famine in the mid 1980s that left more than one million people dead.
But, Sahlu points out the Ethiopian government is beginning to take the issue of overpopulation seriously. He says it has come up with policies to help reduce the birth rate, currently averaging six children per woman in Ethiopia.
One part involves a major public health initiative. Over the next three years, the government has set a goal of bringing family planning services to Ethiopia's rural areas by providing basic health training to more than 25,000 young women and deploying them to each village in the country.
And the population may indeed be receptive to such a program. Sahlu says nearly 78 percent of married women in Ethiopia either want to space their births or end them altogether.
But, Sahlu says the lack of money for contraceptives presents a serious problem.
"The 2005 contraceptive deficit is estimated at $12 million," he said. "And if these young girls go out and promote family planning in the countryside, that is only going to aggravate the situation."
He adds the Ethiopian government has committed itself to cover 50 percent of the cost of contraceptives, a goal, he says, that may not be realistic.
All experts agree that much work remains to be done to address Ethiopia's high fertility rate. But those efforts are in competition with a number of other important development issues in Ethiopia: food security, basic infrastructure, healthcare and education.