Egypt in Desperate Bid to Curb Birth Rate as Population Nears 100 Million
Hussein Zidane raised his six children on his farm in Waraq, a rural island in the Nile just a few miles from the centre of Cairo.
In an earlier age, the 46-year-old farmer might have been celebrated for having so many children to help him tend the land.
But today the Egyptian state is trying desperately to stop families from getting as big as Mr Zidane’s.
With the country’s population to due to hit 100 million people later this year, Egyptian authorities have launched the “Two Is Enough” campaign to try to convince people to have no more than two children.
The campaign was launched at the direction of the Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Egypt’s authoritarian president, who has warned that the dangers of overpopulation are the second greatest threat to his country after terrorism.
The strains are already evident as Egypt has 40 per cent less water than it needs for a population of its size, while a battered economy struggles to provide decent jobs for the millions of young people entering the work force each year.
A live population clock on the website of Egypt’s statistics authority shows how the public is growing by 2.5 million people each year. Projections show the country could top 150 million by 2050.
While Egypt has traditionally been seen as a bulwark of stability in the Middle East, Western governments note warily if the Arab world’s largest country cannot find a sustainable way to support its people it could lead to large scale migration towards Europe.
The average Egyptian woman has 3.3 children, compared to a figure of 1.8 in the UK, according to the World Bank. While that is half of what it was in 1960, the Two Is Enough campaign aims to drive it down further.
The campaign, which was launched last year, is built on a combination of carrots and sticks. Workers go door-to-door extolling the virtues of small families and clinics provide free contraception. But the government is also threatening to cut off subsidies to families for any children they have beyond two.
Mr Zidane was sceptical that the state’s efforts would have much impact on people’s behaviour. “Poverty is what will control the birth rate,” he said. “If someone has the financial ability he will have children regardless of what the government says. But if he can’t then he won’t.”
He pointed out that his own 21-year-old daughter has only one child because she and her husband could not afford more.
The Two Is Enough campaign is running up against a conservative Egyptian culture where 80 per cent of women do not work and a significant portion marry young, especially in rural areas. Condoms remain taboo and abortion is illegal.
Nahla Tawab, country director of the Population Council, an international NGO, said a key factor in controlling the birth rate will be if more women stay in education and find employment.
“If woman are at home not working what else are they going to do other than have children?” she said. “What the government needs to do more of is create employment opportunities for women – help women stay in school, complete secondary education and then move onto university.”
Among the most urgent questions for Egypt is finding enough water to support its people. According to UN standards, a population of Egypt’s size needs around 100 billion cubic meters of water. Today, it only has around 60 billion cubic meters – a 40 per cent deficit.
That shortage is already wreaking havoc on farmers who cannot find enough clean water for their crops and are being force to reuse damaging waste water. By one estimate, Egypt is losing 55 acres of farmland a day because of the shortages.
Ezzat Tawfik, 53, is among the farmers already feeling the impact. His 10 acre plot is in Faiyoum, a rural area south of Cairo, at the end of a long canal bringing water from the Nile.
Starting in 2011, Mr Tawfik found that in the summer months there was no water left in the canal by the time it reached his cotton fields. “The land starts suffering. For three months there is no water coming at all.”
The shortages have damaged his business but Mr Tawfik said he could not abandon his farm. “We inherited this from our fathers and we have no choice but keeping it going. It’s not like I have a failed project and can shut it down. It’s our way of life.”
Climate change will exacerbate the water shortages and Egypt is also deeply concerned about Ethiopian plans to build a vast dam upstream in the Nile, diverting even more water away from Egypt.
Mr Sisi has said he considers plans for the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam a threat to Egypt’s national security and hinted that he could take military action to preserve Egypt’s share of the water.
“This situation may take us to the first water war in the world,” said Nader Noureldeen, professor of water resources.
There will be no single solution to Egypt’s water crisis but a starting point would be updating leaking water infrastructure and reforming wasteful irrigation practices. One initiative so far encourages Muslim worshippers to use less water when they wash before prayers.
The EU has given Egypt €450 million (£393 million) in grants since 2007 and much of it has been aimed at water security.
“Water is life for Egypt and it’s our priority to be engaged in water sector,” said Ivan Surkoš, the EU ambassador in Cairo. “We are supporting sustainable social economic development to contribute to prosperity and stability here and not create another zone of instability. Egypt is reaching 100 million people so this is a real power in the region and is so close to Europe.”
Egypt’s problems are many as it tries to curb the birthrate and find enough water to survive. But analysts say there is no reason that a combination of technology and smart policy could not put the country on a sustainable track.
“It’s very easy to be extremely down on Egypt’s resource future but as the grave as the situation might look there is every potential to resolve it,” said Peter Schwartzstein, non-resident fellow at the Centre for Climate and Security think tank in Washington. “It will just require a degree of care, attention, and long-term thinking that has been in quite supply shortage so far.