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A few thoughts on last months poll question on Uganda’s too high population growth

The question was: Uganda has one of the highest population growth rates in the world of 3.2%p.a. Can the economy and the environment sustain this?

So the simple majority think, the nation’s economy & environment will not be able to sustain this extremely high population growth rate. Some regions, like Bududa where there was a recent landslide, leading to hundreds of deaths is warning enough. It was not the first time such a catastrophe happened in the same region, costing lives & destroying property. Almost every inhabitable inch of land in the “freely” available spaces, i.e. that have not been gazetted for the national park or that have not yet been encroached on, etc, are already occupied. Each woman in Uganda, according to several population statistics figures gives birth to about 7 children. All these need land. That means cutting down more trees & other natural vegetation, to provide land for settlement & to get building materials, firewood & so on … In the short term, we shall continue having these landslides, because the natural vegetation that trapped the rain water, allowing it to sink into the soil is no longer there & this largely flows downhill instead, causing soil erosion, swelling rivers, that also not only erode soil, but wash away bridges, houses & more lives, with the known results. A few banana, coffee or bean plants are no substitute for the natural vegetation cover, especially on such steep slopes in an area where it can rain very heavily for weeks on end. In the long term, … that is how desertification begins.

There are areas in Kenya in the last couple of years that have faced acute drought as a direct result of deforestation, with diverse and far reaching effects. “Close canopy forests have a crucial role as water catchments. If the forest is damaged, there will be increasing risks of flood during the rainy season and of drought during the dry season. This is particularly true as a consequence of deforestation in the mountainous regions of Mount Kenya, the Aberdare range, the Mau escarpment, Mount Elgon and the Cherangani hills. Alone, these amount to three-quarters of the total of indigenous forests in Kenya, and provide much of the nation’s water, highlighting the forests’ role as water catchments. “It is very likely that [the current] shortages of water and electricity in the city of Nairobi are related to the degradation of the forests of the Mount Kenya and Aberdare range,” Christian Lambrechts said.” [ (link is external) ] This however only mentions some of the effects. Another issue is the potential for conflict. Now and then, you read in newspapers how people fight, often with fatal results over land issues. I have read several stories about conflicts involving using machetes on the borders of parts of Bugisu & Bugwere & also with Bunyole, people fighting & killing each other because one party thought the other had crossed over to the other‘s area. Such conflicts are very likely to increase and will not be limited to fighting over some few square meters of swampland. Furthermore, the natural fauna is slowly being driven out of existence. There are hardly any wild animals left in some areas. That is as far as the environment is concerned The other issue is: Supposing instead of 7 kids/woman, they were 2, or 3 instead? These would logically have a better standard of living, if the father did not have to divide his $40, $50 equivalent (or less!) of monthly income between so many mouths! There is often a connection, between not being able to buy a pair of shoes for each of the 6, 7, 8 children, or only being able to afford meat once a month or none at all, not being able to buy a textbook for a kid and the total family income being divided among too many people.

One does not need to be a rocket scientist to see that. Uganda has had a quite impressive economic growth rate of between 5 & 8% p.a. in most of the last 20 years. The GDP has grown considerably. One of the reasons, why many people have not felt this, especially in rural areas is partially because of this. The economic gains made are negated by the effects of high population growth. People keep wondering why the economic growth is not being felt by most people. If we look at countries that have made leaps in their standards of living, the Asian tigers for example, or in other places, none has a similar pattern in terms of population growth. In fact many of them have had a drastic reduction in population growth rates. We do not have to go to the extreme of 1 kid/woman or family, though. The people there, though realize that they can live much better with small manageable families. In the past, in the times of our parents and before that, times were different then. Having many kids was a necessity and one could afford it. There were however no need to take them to school so they could have better chances for employment in a world requiring more and more of skilled labor. There was lots of land & many of the pressures faced in the modern society were not there. In Rwanda, the government, whose country is much smaller than Uganda & with one of the highest population densities in Africa, has recognized this as a problem that must be addressed, unlike in Uganda. They are encouraging families through different initiatives to have fewer children, 2, 3 or something like that. A mayor of some town was encouraging the inhabitants of his town to give birth to as many kids as possible, so their town qualifies to be classified as a “city”. Other politicians look at a big population as providing a big “market” for goods produced in the region!! I have heard many different people talking of UN & “western” organisations’/governments’ warning on high population growth or of the need to have smaller families as being a “conspiracy” to keep our numbers low for some ulterior motives! That may be true, but there are other facets to this issue!! Some friend from Liberia was telling me the same a few weeks ago, but I told him, in some areas, too high a population putting pressure on the environment has led to very undesirable results. I have read some religious leaders’ comments on the same subject, which are all but helpful.

Learn from the fight against AIDS

I think the government can do a lot to change this. One can start by looking at what Rwanda is doing. Through education, such as in the area of family planning & many other government-led initiatives, people can be sensitized on the benefits of having smaller families & helped to achieve this, for example through setting up centers at county or other level where people get counselling and other practical help. I one time overheard an elderly lady asking her cousin, who is a doctor for “medicine” (contraceptives) to help her so she does not have to bear a kid almost every year. She said the husband was very unco-operative on this , demanding his conjugal rights. Ultimately, it means more disposable income, a higher standard of living for the individual families, but also through this, they play a big part in conserving the environment as much less land and resources, such as firewood would be needed for less people.

The government has demonstrated in the past, that it can deal with such a difficult issue by the way it managed to curb the spread of AIDS. This “problem” can be dealt with, but only with the similar vigor, determination and conviction. It managed to reach the people, literate & illiterate, urban & rural, although it also involved dealing with a “touchy” subject. I believe just like in the case of AIDS, because of the magnitude of the problem, the government needs to be involved at the highest levels, to spearhead any initiative until other institutions can then manage it.. The pearl of Africa will & can only remain one if among other things, something is done to considerably reduce the current extremely high population growth of around 3.2 – 3.4% p.a. to manageable levels.

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