Al-Ahram Weekly Online   11 - 17 May 2006
Issue No. 794
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

No strength in numbers

Egypt's rapid population growth is crowding out development, writes Maged Osman*

Click to view caption
Population charts

What happens when economic development can't keep up with population growth? Economists agree that social and economic development requires a national income growth rate three times more than the population growth rate. Hence, it is difficult to overemphasize the importance of controlling population growth in Egypt.

The most obvious feature of Egypt's population problem is the continued increase in the population growth rate. Our numbers have doubled from 2.5 million in 1800 to 5 million in 1850, then to 10 million in 1900, and again to 20 million in 1947. This means that the Egyptian population has doubled once every fifty years over one and half centuries (1800-1950). It took a mere 30 years for the number to double the fourth time around: from 20 million in 1950 to 40 million in 1978. The increase resumed again until the population reached nearly sixty million, according to the 1996 census. Finally by January, 2006, Egypt`s population had reached nearly 71.348 million inhabitants and is expected to continue rising throughout the 21st century.

Accordingly, the main challenge currently facing the government is how to control this population growth rate. The growth rate reached 2.52 per cent during the period 1960-1966. From 1966-1976 it dropped to 1.92 per cent, only to rise again to its highest level of 2.75 per cent during 1976-1986. Subsequently, from 1986-1996, the growth rate dropped to 2.08 per cent, and it continued to decrease gradually over the last five years to 2.01per cent in 2002, and 1.91 per cent in January 2006.

This population explosion has, furthermore, been accompanied by uncontrolled internal migration, negatively impacting economic and industrial development and resulting in increased population density and excess labour, not to mention the inevitable creation of new slums.

There was a notable absence throughout of any real urbanisation management. Regrettably, urban development policy in Egypt is characterised by favouritism, a fact that is obvious considering that most development projects have been set up in a few select urban and capital centers.

Then there is also a problem of geographical distribution. A characteristic of Egypt's population growth is that it is coupled by high population density. Egyptians continue to inhabit a narrow piece of land which constitutes less than 5.5 per cent of the total area of Egypt. This fact has resulted in a population density that had reached 70.7 inhabitants/km2 by January 2006. During the time when population growth rates were characterized by instability in the second half of the last century, population density continued to increase, recording 36.28 inhabitants/km2 in 1976, 47.8 inhabitants /km2 in 1986, and increasing once again to 58.76 inhabitants/ km2 in 1996. By 2000 population density had reached 64.05 inhabitants/km2, increasing to 70.7 inhabitants /km2 today.

Despite the overall increase in population density, it is notable that some governorates suffer from low population density as a result of the concentration of most of the population in the Nile valley. According to population estimates in January 2006, population density was highest in lower Egypt governorates which recorded 914.9 inhabitants/km2, followed by the urban governorates which recorded 815.1 inhabitants/km2. It is lower in upper Egypt's governorates, where it reached 151.8 inhabitants/ km2. The lowest population density is in the frontier governorates which recorded 1.3 inhabitants/ km2.

The high levels of population density naturally led to fierce competition over the usage of land for agriculture and for housing. These facts highlight the danger posed by population density to Egypt's ongoing development efforts.

Other negative consequences caused by the population problem and the rising population growth rates are the decreasing per capita shares of public utilities, such as the per capita share of potable water, electricity, health, education and transportation. Furthermore, it obviously affects unemployment and illiteracy rates, and food shortages as well.

If population growth continues at the same current rates, Egypt's population is projected to reach 79.4 million by 2011, and 86.6 million by 2016. If the same growth rates continue further, the population is expected to reach 93.5 million by 2021.

High population density along the Nile valley, especially in lower Egypt and the urban governorates, will constitute a huge threat to the per capita share of public utilities, infrastructure, health, education and public services. For example, in the case of potable water, assuming an annual population growth rate of 1.6 per cent by 2016, and 1.5 per cent by 2015, we must also assume that investments in the water sector would keep up with the increasing population numbers if we are to maintain a constant level for the per capita share of potable water during the coming 15 years. If investments in water utilities infrastructure did not meet the requirements of the predicted population growth, it will clearly negatively affect the individual needs of water sources. This is particularly worrying considering the fact Egypt's share of Nile river waters is fixed at 55 billion m3. Based on that, the per capita share of water sources will decrease as the population grows. Per capita water share amounted to 927 m3 in 1995, then decreased to 850 m3 in 2000, decreased again in 2005 to 771 m3. It is expected to decrease to 590 m3 by 2026.

Per capita share of sanitation services will also be affected by population growth and high population density. In 1981/82, the per capita share of sanitation services amounted to 25 litre/ day. It increased more than fourfold to reach 110 litre/ day by 2000/2001, only to increase again to 150 litre/day in 2005/2006. It is expected to increase to 225 liter/ day by 2017.

As for the per capita share of electricity, it doubled during the period 1981/1982 -- 1991/1992, increasing from 414 kwh in 1981/1982 to 850 kwh in 1991/1992. It increased by six per cent annually over the period from 1992/1993 -- 1999/2000, and remained unchanged at the level of 1350 kwh during the four following years. It resumed its increase again to reach 1450 kwh in 2004/2005. This highlights the importance of increasing investments in basic infrastructure, including in public utilities.

In conclusion, a three-pronged approach is necessary to address the population problem in Egypt: decreasing population growth rate, enhancing population properties, and, finally, seeking a better geographic distribution of our population.

To solve the population density and the overpopulation problem in Egypt, we need a carefully planned strategy for new urban communities that would provide different housing alternatives outside the valley and Delta. The prerequisite for success is a realization by the Egyptian government that it will be impossible to attain and sustain higher economic growth within the confines of the narrow Nile valley while leaving about 95.5 per cent of Egypt's total land area neglected and unused.

* The writer is Chairman of the Information and Decision Support Centre, the Egyptian Cabinet.

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