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Story Publication logo March 2, 2011

A Threat Beyond Mubarak: Egypt's Growing Population

Image by Ellen Knickmeyer. Tunisia, 2011.

Ellen Knickmeyer has been traveling the Arab world from the first weeks of the revolutions to tell...

Media file: Ottaway-Egypt-Photo_9980.jpg
Richard Ottaway, Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee in the UK Parliament. Image by Stephen Hobbs. United States, 2011.

You've heard about the role of Twitter and Facebook and emergency law in the protests and revolutions proliferating across the Middle East, but what about sex?

"You can actually follow [it] through—population, increased food prices, riots, social unrest, downfall of government, all starting from the other end of the spectrum from rising levels of population."

So says Richard Ottaway, Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee in the UK Parliament and population expert. During a visit to Washington last month, he made the point that the turmoil in many Middle Eastern countries underscores the need for a more realistic, candid discussion of the role of family planning everywhere—an issue that he said has become an unruly "mixture of religion, ideology, ignorance, and sex."

Ottaway isn't speaking off the cuff. In 2006, he chaired a series of eight hearings in the UK Parliament on the relationship between rapid population growth and challenges facing developing countries. The resulting report found that rapid population growth like Egypt's leads to more poverty, hunger, gender inequality, low levels of education, and environmental degradation.

If he's right that demographics is a driver of events in Egypt, then a fix will be a long time coming. With 83 million people in 2009 and another 55 million expected by 2050, Egypt faces more than a tricky transition from autocracy to democracy, it has to deal with the consequences of demographic fundamentals.

The UN Population Division says that if Egypt's total fertility rate (the number of children born to an average woman over her lifetime, currently 3.0) fell to replacement level tomorrow, Egypt would still add 39 million more people by 2050. That's because of population momentum, which is driven by the large number of women already there and in their childbearing years.

In the meantime, the World Bank puts Egypt's renewable water supplies (critical to agriculture and industry) at 22 cubic meters per capita annually, about one quarter that of arid Yemen. That's a rounding error on U.S. per capita supplies (9,200 cubic meters). If population projections are on target and Egypt's water supplies remain the same, each resident would have only 15 cubic meters by 2050.

The protesters who took to Egypt's streets this winter deposed President Hosni Mubarak with remarkable speed. The consequences of Egypt's rapidly growing population may prove to be a more daunting foe.



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