By Will Rasmussen
CAIRO, July 2 (Reuters) - Red and white banners along Nile bridges and Cairo streets this month were Egypt’s latest effort to curb an increasingly pressing problem: a population growing faster than the economy can support.
Since President Hosni Mubarak took office in 1981, the population has nearly doubled. But most of the country’s 76 million people are squashed in urban areas near the Nile, in an area roughly the size of Switzerland, which is home to just 7.5 million.
"Before you add another baby, make sure his needs are secured," ran the slogan, adding to a string of campaigns over 30 years to encourage family planning. Mubarak told a government-sponsored population conference that cutting population growth was urgent.
With about one fifth of the population living on less than $1 a day and food and fuel prices lifting inflation to a 19-year high, discontent is mounting. But beyond domestic concerns, Egypt could become a poster-child for a global trend.
According to the United Nations, the poor are set to be more and more numerous by 2050 and many will be living in towns as the world population climbs to a total of 9.2 billion. Essentially all the growth will be in less developed countries.
Egypt — where the divide between rich and poor is stark and resistance to targeted birth control common — shows how that could happen.
"Impossible," said Cairo taxi-driver and father-of-five Mohammed Ahmed, waving a cigarette in the air for emphasis when asked about Mubarak’s appeal to slow population growth. "That is for God to decide."
Around 38 percent of Egyptians are younger than 15, and according to the World Bank, women make up only around 22 percent of the labour force, so the incentive for birth control is weak.
Population growth has remained stubbornly high at around 2 percent for the last decade and the fertility rate, at about 3.1 children per woman — compared with 2.1 in the United States — has also been stable.
Lacking the oil reserves of their Gulf Arab neighbours to fund investment, Egypt’s recent economic growth at around 7 percent has not been steady enough to build a significant middle class.
"The population explosion is a crisis the government doesn’t know how to handle," said Milad Hanna, a former member of parliament and a columnist at the state-owned newspaper al-Ahram.
DEPENDENT ON NILE
While lamenting the strain on the country’s limited resources — especially of water and fertile land in a country where rainfall is almost zero — the government has avoided using incentives or punitive policies to modify behaviour.
Firm measures such as restricting maternity benefits for those with large families, which helped Iran sharply slow its population growth during the 1990s, would be politically dangerous in Egypt, where there have already been protests over food shortages, said Hanna.
Egypt is not about to legalise abortion, which has helped Tunisia bring down its fertility levels, and vasectomy, commonly practised in Iran, is barely heard of in Egypt.
Egyptians, especially in the countryside, view large families as a source of economic strength. Many will continue bearing children until they have a boy.
"The population will continue to grow and the government can only make an appeal," Hanna said.
The outlook for both Egypt and the region will be grave if the most populous Arab country continues to grow at current rates, Egyptian and U.N. officials say.
"The consequences are a real deterioration in the quality of life and in agricultural land per person," said Magued Osman, chairman of the cabinet’s Information and Decision Support Center. "We are depending heavily on imported food items and this will increase."
If levels of growth don’t slow, Mubarak says Egypt’s population could double to 160 million by 2050. But Egypt’s government hopes it can be stabilised at 100 million, Osman said: "More than that will be difficult."
In the absence of significant rainfall the greatest constraint is Egypt’s dependence on the waters of the Nile, for which it has to compete against rival demands upstream.
Egypt already uses more than its quota of Nile water, 55.5 billion cubic metres a year, and might have to cut back on consumption if Sudan uses more or if other Nile Basin countries, such as Ethiopia and Uganda, divert more water for themselves.
In a 1959 treaty, Egypt and Sudan agreed to take almost all the Nile’s flow for themselves, leaving out other Nile basin states, who have not agreed to respect it.
In the meantime the Egyptian government is moving Nile water deep into the desert, both for urban development and to water reclaimed agricultural land to grow more food.
Moving out of the Nile valley is the obvious choice to relieve the crowding in places like Cairo, where some districts hold 41,000 people per square km (100,000 per square mile). Manhattan, by comparison, has about 27,000 people per square km.
But some experts question whether a $70 billion government plan to reclaim 3.4 million acres of desert over the next 10 years — which Egypt continues to push ahead with — is feasible given constraints on water.
MIGRANTS SEEK JOBS ABROAD
Ziad Rifai, Egypt representative for the United Nations Population Fund, said continuing high population growth in Egypt could affect neighbouring countries.
"If the general welfare of the people goes below a certain threshold, it affects stability in the region and it affects migration," he said. "The worse the conditions get, the easier it is for extremism to flourish."
Tens of thousands of Egyptians a year try to reach Europe, Libya or the Gulf countries in search of jobs at wages that they cannot find at home. Many die at sea on the way to Europe.
Mubarak tends to avoid mentioning a specific number of children but the government says it prefers a family with two.
Announcing a number would be wrong, said Ali Abdelatif, 34, a security guard who supports two children on about $70 per month.
"My wife gets pregnant very easily," he said, smiling. "So it’s okay to use birth control for the sake of her health, but specifying a number of kids — that is forbidden."
Although clerics in the country, which is about 90 percent Muslim, generally allow contraception, many disagree with targeting a specific number of children.
Birth control for fear of poverty or to prevent conception permanently is unlawful under Islam, according to a fatwa, or Islamic edict on Islam Online, a popular forum for Islamic rulings.
"From a religious point of view I am against the call of President Mubarak," said Salim Awwa, secretary general of the influential International Union for Muslim Scholars. "The state is not God and the state is not the creator. We should not try to limit the number of children." (Editing by Keith Weir and Sara Ledwith)