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Al-Ahram Weekly - January 15, 2010

With some experts predicting that Egypt's population will reach 105 million by 2025 and 130 million by 2030, population control is once again at the top of the political agenda

by Reem Leila

For half a century experts have cited population growth as a major obstacle to sustainable development, and overpopulation has been blamed for just about every social and economic ill in the country. On Sunday Mrs Suzanne Mubarak, head of the National Council for Childhood and Motherhood (NCCM), once again threw the spotlight on this perennial problem during a meeting with Minister of State for Population and Family Mushira Khattab, Minister of Health Hatem El-Gabali, the newly appointed Minister of Education Ahmed Zaki Badr, Minister of State for International Cooperation Fayza Abul- Naga, Minister of Religious Endowments Hamdi Zaqzouq, Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni, members of the executive committee of the National Council for Population and experts in the field of population and family planning. Mrs Mubarak warned that overpopulation could easily undermine social and economic development. Population growth is "a key challenge for this generation and the generations to come," she said, stressing that Egypt's burgeoning population increases health risks for women and children and erodes the quality of life by reducing access to education, nutrition, employment and scarce resources such as potable water. Egypt's population has more than doubled in 30 years. Despite an official economic growth rate of seven per cent, Egypt suffers from high unemployment rates with 40 per cent of the population living on or around the poverty line. There was a dire need, said Mrs Mubarak, to create the Ministry of State for Family and Population in order "to set strategies, plans, follow their implementation and coordinate the efforts of all the concerned ministries and authorities to end the agonising problem of overpopulation." Mrs Mubarak urged ministries, the private sector and civil society to join in a nationwide campaign to increase awareness of the dangers of overpopulation. She asked the media, writers and intellectuals and men of religion to support the campaign. "It is essential to formulate effective plans for birth control and to encourage a more balanced geographical distribution of population," she said. Economic and political reforms in the absence of reduced population growth, were doomed to failure, said Mrs Mubarak. She also insisted on Egypt's right to assert its independence from the overbearing, paternalistic measures of developed countries and determine its own national policy on birth control, agricultural practices and economic issues. In 2007 a national plan of action was prepared which set a target of 2.1 per cent population growth by 2017. "Unfortunately this will not be achieved before 2035, if not 2040," says Khattab. "We are under pressure to expedite our efforts. Our short-term objective is to improve family planning services. Improving medical counselling is another short-term concern. Advocacy efforts are also urgently needed to bring the dangers of the current rate of population growth home to people," she says. "Our efforts to control population growth are guided in the long run by our determination to improve the quality of life for the most marginalised families. In most cases, a bigger family in the lower socio-economic groups is linked to the perception of the child as being of economic value and a tool to alleviate family poverty." "Our advocacy and awareness raising efforts aim primarily to make facts available to the family. Alongside this we will work on improving the quality of medical counselling, including providing female doctors and contraceptives free of charge." High levels of population density have led to shortfalls in the kind and quality of public services. Abu Bakr El-Guindi, head of the Central Authority of Public Mobilisation and Statistics (CAPMAS), points out that the latest statistics by CAPMAS placed Egypt's total population at 80 million, including an estimated 3.9 million temporary emigrants. "If the current population growth rate continues -- a baby every 23 seconds, or 1.3 million every year -- Egypt will be home to at least 160 million people by 2050," explains El-Guindi. This inevitably leads to a decreasing per capita share of public utilities, including potable water, electricity, health, education and transport, placing an enormous burden on the public purse. Health Minister Hatem El-Gabali announced a training programme for doctors and female rural tutors in order to help increase women's awareness of contraceptive methods. El-Gabali promised to "increase the number of female rural tutors in order to reach our goals in a shorter time", and stressed that Egypt's advanced health services as well as an earlier national campaign seeking to reduce population rates had succeeded in lowering reproduction from 7.2 children per woman in the early 1960s to 3.4 in 1998. Madiha Khattab, head of the National Democratic Party's (NDP) Health and Population Committee, underlined the importance of foregrounding the links between population growth, sustainable development and the optimal reproduction level for Egyptian families to ensure improved living conditions. "It must be stressed that two children for every family," she said, "leads to a better life for everyone." Following the meeting Mrs Mubarak paid a visit to the children's hotline 16000 where she was briefed by psychologists, psychiatrists and sociologists on the line's operation.

Photo (c) Al-Ahram. Mrs Mubarak discussing the challenges of over population

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