Egypt’s population growth cause for concern

Sunday 18/12/2016
Abu Bakr al-Guindi, the head of the Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics, speaking to The Arab Weekly at his office in Cairo. (The Arab Weekly)

Cairo - Of all statistics put on Abu Bakr al-Guindi’s desk every day, the one showing Egypt’s popu­lation growth always strikes him as “dangerous”.
Guindi, a retired army general who has spent 11 years leading Egypt’s state-run statistics agency, the Central Agency for Public Mo­bilisation and Statistics (CAPMAS), said population growth needs to be reduced “otherwise, Egypt will not be able to feed its people in the future”.
“The population keeps growing but Egypt’s resources are very lim­ited,” he said.
The population growth rate has long been a major challenge for Egypt’s governments. Former president Hosni Mubarak warned it would dwarf resources and keep the country struggling to feed itself.
Egypt’s population has been growing 2.4% annually — more than 2 million people every year. It stands at 94 million, making Egypt the most populous country in the Middle East, and is expected to reach 125 million in 2030.
Guindi said Egypt’s population growth is five times that of China and eight times that of South Ko­rea.
“We cannot keep going like this,” he said. “For our country to feed all these people, its economy must grow three times as much as it does now.”
The effect on water resources, agricultural output, living space and educational, health and hous­ing services is tremendous.
Egyptians live on only 7.8% of the country’s 1 million sq. kilome­tres of land. While attempts to cre­ate housing and agricultural com­munities in the desert achieved some success, the vast majority of people live in the urban centres, es­pecially Cairo and the coastal city of Alexandria where most services are concentrated.
Egypt’s economic growth shrank to less than 2% annually after the 2011 revolution that ended Mubarak’s 30-year rule as deterio­rating security caused an industrial slump and tourists stayed away.
The economy is growing 4% a year. However, experts say it needs to add 1 million jobs to meet de­mand.
Egyptian Prime Minister Sherif Ismail on December 11th said there was not enough money in govern­ment coffers to provide enough services for the people. A tour of Egypt’s hospitals speaks volumes about the shortages. Schools are crowded. Millions of citizens live in slums and thousands of villages and districts lack sewage, electric­ity and drinking water.
Nonetheless, experts say this is less about population growth and more about the failure to make the best use of what is available.
“We have clear mismanage­ment of human resources in this country,” said Maghawry Shehata, a professor of hydrogeology and water resources expert. “Instead of viewing the population as an asset for development, the government views it as a problem.”
Almost 56% of Egypt’s popula­tion is between 15 and 54 years old, constituting, as economists say, a huge productive force.
Underlying Egypt’s failure to rein in population growth are birth control schemes that cost the gov­ernment hundreds of millions of dollars with little success. Early marriages, poverty and rampant illiteracy stand behind this failure, according to Atef al-Shitany, the head of the Health Ministry’s fam­ily planning section.
“Egypt needs to enforce positive and negative incentives to curb its population growth,” Shitany said. “Also, we need to convince Egyp­tians that small families mean bet­ter living standards.”
Guindi said Egypt needs to re­place its current free-for-all edu­cation system with one that offers free tuition only for the family’s first child while parents should pay for the education of the second and other children.
“The same must apply to all ser­vices,” Guindi said. “Population growth is a blessing only when countries have enough money to of­fer services but it is a curse when they do not, which is Egypt’s condi­tion at present.”