New light on Egypt's future

Posted: 6 April 2005

Author: John Rowley

With its numbers likely to double and with severely limited water supplies from the River Nile, Egypt faces formidable population and related environmental problems. And these will be made worse if global warming reduces the rainfall over the Nile Basin. Now a groundbreaking study will look at these population, environment and human development interactions in the round.

The study, which follows similar ones by the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), in Mauritius, Botswana, Mozambique and elsewhere, will focus on what is termed "human capital formation" - pinpointing the role of education, for example, in shaping a more productive and balanced population - which, at the moment, has a wide base of young people, with enormous potential for future growth.

Egypt already has a policy to bring down the fertility rate to replacement level by 2017 (with an average family size of 2.1 children). However, says IIASA, this is a doubtful goal since the fertility decline in Egypt seems to have stalled during the 1990's, and women are still having around 3.5 children.

With limited options for agricultural development, the future livelihood of this growing population can only be secured, it says, through the rapid development of the industrial and service industries. But to do this requires a sufficiently well-education population.

Educating girls

As the 1996 census showed, a large proportion of the adult population is still without any formal education, particularly women. But by 2026, IIASA projects, the situation could look very different if the Egypt's fertility goals can be reached along with the Millenium Development Goals for education. In this case, the momentum for future population growth would be greatly reduced and the educated workforce, especially among young women, would be very much greater.

To explore this further, IIASA will collect data from all 27 governorates in the country and define alternative population and education scenarios, building on projections by age, sex and education.

Nile Basin

Other studies have been looking at the future water supplies in the whole Nile Basin, including Egypt, which obtains most of its renewable water supplies from outside its borders.

Most of the Nile waters originate in two distinct regions: the Ethiopian highlands and the Equatorial Lakes plateau. But attempts to model the likely impact of climate change on these regions has proved difficult, not only because of the complexity of the system, but also because different global models of the circulation of the atmosphere predict very different levels of temperature and rainfall in the Nile Basin.

As a result estimates for changes in the annual flow of the Nile in Egypt range from an increase of around 22 per cent to a very dramatic reduction of around 80 per cent by 2060.

Water demand

Altogether the population of the ten countries in the Nile Basin (including Ethiopia, Sudan, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda) is around 360 million. All are mainly agricultural and all have rapidly growing populations. As a result, water demand in the region is likely to grow very rapidly.

Indeed, drawing on FAO and UN data, IIASA shows that where Egypt had a fresh water supply of over 2,000 cubic metres per person, per year, in 1960, by 2050 that may be down to as little as 250 cubic metres. The drop in Ethiopia, Sudan and Uganda is equally dramatic. In all cases the prime cause is rapid population growth.

Source: Popnet (Population Network Newsletter) No 36

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