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The Challenges of a Growing Population for Egypt

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The map shows the birth rate (in percentage) between 2010 and 2015, the total population (in millions) as of 2015 and the population density (persons per square km) as of 2015 per country in the MENA region.
©Fanack

Egypt, already the most populous country in the Arab world, hit a new milestone on 6 December 2015, when the country’s domestic population reached 90 millions, further stressing an already weak infrastructure.

The milestone, reported in early December by Egypt’s Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics (CAPMAS), also estimated the number of Egyptians living abroad at about eight million. This new record means the population has more than doubled since 1981.

The most populous region is the greater Cairo metropolitan area, which is home to nearly 24 million residents, ten million of whom live in the capital Cairo itself. South Sinai was the least populated area, with only 175,406 people living there. Egypt covers one million square kilometres, but it is largely desert, and most of the population lives on less than five per cent of the country’s land, which is concentrated in the fertile basin of the Nile River. The population density often exceeds 40,000 people per square kilometre in the teeming capital.

In a press statement, Abu Bakr El-Gendy, the head of CAPMAS, called the increasing rate of population growth “disastrous,” citing it as one of the major challenges in development for the country and the biggest danger it will face in coming years. The growth rate since 2000 has been 2.52%, higher than that of the 1990s. The growth rate has increased further since the 2011 revolution, and the number of new births in Egypt in 2015 was equal to that of Germany, France, Spain, and the United Kingdom together.

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The graph shows the GDP growth rate (in percentage) as of 2015 and the population growth rate between 2010 and 2015, per country in the MENA region. ©Fanack

Speaking at a workshop for new parliament members, El-Gendy added that the main problems are that economic growth in Egypt fails to keep up with population growth and that the largest increase in the birth rate is amongst the poorest people. He added that the economic growth rate would have to be three times that of the population growth rate to keep up.

Most of Egypt’s population is young, with about two-thirds of the people under 30 years of age. Many struggle with unemployment, which has been rising gradually over the past few years. Official CAMPAS records show that unemployment stands at 12.8 per cent, although Khalid Ikram, the past World Bank Middle East director, put it as high as 25 per cent. Unemployment has been cited as the leading reason youth want to emigrate.

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The graph shows youth ages 15-24 (in millions) and the sex ratio of the total population (male/100 females) per country in the MENA region as of 2015. ©Fanack

The rise in population has been coupled with a rise in poverty; more than 23.5 million Egyptians live in poverty. A 2015 CAMPAS report put poverty amongst youth as high as 50 per cent, and it continues to increase, as the country suffers serious setbacks in tourism following a series of events, ranging from a terrorist attack downing a Russian plane to the killing by the army of a group of Mexican tourists they mistook for terrorists. Foreign investment in Egypt has also slowed, due to the political instability of the past five years. Rising inflation, increasing prices, and the plummeting value of the Egyptian pound have also worsened poverty and slowed the economy.

Failing Resources and Infrastructure

The 1990s saw a push by the regime of the autocratic president Hosni Mubarak to reduce fertility through large media campaigns to educate people about birth control and by opening Planned Parenthood clinics around the country, which offer advice to couples on birth control, as well as subsidized condoms and contraceptives. The new government of Abdel Fatah el-Sisi, however, has not set targets for the control of fertility.

The growth rate is highest in rural areas, where families generally prefer bigger families. Some farmers need many children to help them in the field. The rate is also particularly high amongst poorer families, who often depend on their children as breadwinners.

The increasing population has strained the resources of the populous Arab state. Egypt depends mainly on the Nile for its water supply, and its share of water was fixed decades ago, even though the population continues to grow. Recently, Ethiopia began to fill its Grand Renaissance Dam, which threatens to decrease further the water available to Egyptians.

In March 2015, Hossam Moghazi, Egypt’s minister of irrigation and water resources, warned that the country is failing to meet its water needs. The country receives less than 60 billion cubic metres of water annually from the Nile, rain, and groundwater, but current consumption is nearly 83 billion cubic metres.

A CAPMAS report in 2014 stated that the annual water share of Egyptians has fallen from 1,672 cubic metres per capita in 1970 to 663 cubic metres, a decrease of about 60 per cent.

Many Egyptians live in difficult conditions, with the infrastructure of the country is failing to match the increase in population, especially in rural areas. A shocking report released by CAPMAS near the end of 2015 found that three-quarters of 4,655 Egyptian villages surveyed lacked sewage systems. In almost half of the villages lucky enough to have sewage systems, they were seldom working properly. Rainfall in the winter of 2015 caused major floods in many cities, due to the bad conditions of drainage systems.

While nearly all the villages in the survey had access to water and electricity, almost 40 per cent experienced regular power cuts every few days, and more than half had water cuts daily or weekly.

According to the United Nations, Egypt’s population is projected to continue to grow at the breakneck rate of one million per year. If the rate does not decrease, it will be very difficult to maintain a rate of development that can keep up with this growth and provide jobs for the young people who have become disenfranchised by the conditions in Egypt.