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Joe Guzzardi Joe Guzzardi: Egypt faces huge problems of overpopulation, poverty

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Joe Guzzardi

Posted: Saturday, March 19, 2011 12:00 am

Although America's attention has shifted to Japan's devastation, a look back at the recent Egyptian crisis proves that it was more about failed population than misplaced leadership.

For the last several years, former President Hosni Mubarak had been locked in a philosophical debate with Egyptian academics about family planning. Although the Egyptian total fertility rate has declined steadily since the early 1960s from a high of 7.2 children per woman and is anticipated to keep falling until it reaches 2.0 in 2025, Mubarak's government wisely endorsed continued spending on population control. Mubarak's approval of family planning comes as little surprise, since Egypt's population doubled to 82 million since 1981 when he took office.

Mubarak's opponents, however, claimed that when the Toshka Project is completed in 2020, it will have transformed half a million desert acres into arable land, thus reducing high density population pressures in the Nile Valley.

But whatever may happen to the Toshka Project, the inevitability of increased population growth, generated by the existing 8 million Egyptians, means huge challenges lie ahead. Demographics control destiny.

Here, in part, is what Egypt still has to overcome.

In Cairo, Egypt's capital and the seat of the citizens' revolution, some districts hold more than 41,000 people per square kilometer, or 100,000 per square mile. Manhattan, by comparison, has about 27,000 people per square kilometer.

More than 15 million Egyptians live on less than $1 a day, a key factor driving last month's protests. The divide in Egypt between rich and poor, where resistance to birth control is high, is startling.

Even though Egypt has severely limited resources, especially fertile land and water (only 3 inches of rain falls annually), the numbers of poor steadily increases.

In past years, the Egyptian government mounted an aggressive but unsuccessful advertising campaign to limit new births. One motto: "Before you add another baby, make sure his needs are secured."

Despite Egypt's progress in reducing its total fertility rate, currently estimated by the Population Reference Bureau at 3.0, that total is still unsustainably high. As long as Egypt's base population increases, no meaningful headway on critical social issues like education can occur.

Egypt offers free education and well-established literacy programs. But the numbers of Egyptian illiterates, one in every four or nearly 17 million, remains unchanged over the last two decades. Ghada Gholam, an UNESCO Egypt literacy specialist, said: "There are lots of successful efforts, but with the increase in the population growth it is really difficult to decrease the number of illiterates."

Population statistics reveal the grim story. Educators must teach 1.4 million Egyptians to read and write annually simply to keep up with the country's population growth. And for every 700, 000 who learn to read, the literacy rate is only reduced by one percent.

Other variables that limit access to education include the high post-puberty drop out rate for teenage girls and the inability of poor parents to pay for transportation or the textbooks. Nearly 70 percent of women, Egypt's mothers and future mothers, are illiterate.

Each year, Egypt's population swells by approximately 1.5 million. The United Nations projects that Egypt will grow from 95.6 million in 2026 to 114.8 million in 2065 when it will finally stabilize.

Egyptian high fertility has imposed costly socioeconomic burdens on the nation. Economic development is stalled and quality of life eroded because of reduced access to jobs, education, water and food.

Little wonder Egyptians took to the streets. But too many decades ignoring an exploding population have left Egypt with few options for future improvement.

Joe Guzzardi is a Senior Writing Fellow at Californians for Population Stabilization. He retired from the Lodi Unified School District in 2008. Contact him at joeguzzardi@capsweb.org.

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