Population growth in the Middle East, though higher than everywhere but sub-Saharan Africa, has been slowing thanks to falling fertility rates, the measure used by demographers for the number of children a woman is likely to have. But after 50 years of decline, the fertility rate in Egypt, the region’s most populous nation, is now back up to 3.5. That is lower than in Iraq and Yemen where it is over four, but above Saudi Arabia and Iran, which with 77m has the second-largest number of people in the region. Since infant mortality is falling and life expectancy increasing, the population will surely start growing faster.
That would be “catastrophic”, says one researcher in Cairo. By 2050 the UN thinks Egypt could be home to up to 140m people; and they live on just over 5% of its land, along the Nile and coast, since the rest is desert. Only with fewer than 55m people would the country escape being classed as “water poor” (with less than 1,000 cubic metres of water per person a year), says Atef al-Shitany, head of family planning at the health ministry. Shabby schools and hospitals are increasingly overburdened.
The increasing number of births will rob Egypt of some of its imminent demographic dividend—the economic advantage of having few old people and children relative to the number of working adults. “Meeting the demands of this population will require strong, sustained economic growth and redistributive policies,” says Jaime Nadal Roig, who heads Egypt’s branch of the UN’s population fund. Sadly for Egypt, making the economic indicators tick up fast enough is as hard as making the fertility rate go back down.To be sure, the birth rate was not previously dropping fast enough to have produced a true demographic dividend, but these new data certainly do take away any hint of the possibility of anything except future hardship for the average Egyptian unless these trends can be quickly reversed. Birth rates seemed to rise in every segment of Egyptian society, including across all educational groups. Only in urban lower Egypt (i.e., Cairo and Alexandria) did fertility not go up, but it didn't go down in these places either. It will be very important for the current or future governments to reinvigorate family planning programs so that married women have greater access to birth control (historically these programs have been much more available to married than to single women), and to invest again in education for women and create employment opportunities for young women, so that they will be encouraged to delay marriage and thus lower their lifetime number of births.