23 August 2010

Uganda: Time to Apply Brakes On Rapid Population Growth


The rains are back and so are the mudslides in eastern Uganda's mountainous districts on the slopes of Mt. Elgon. As expected, the news media has been awash with stories of the disaster. If the articles are not attacking the government for not doing enough, they are carrying appeals for essential supplies. What is lacking is constructive debate on long term solutions to such disasters.

I lived in Mbale for seven years, and during that time I frequently traversed the surrounding rural areas. Based on what I saw, the problem is Uganda's unsustainable population growth. Eastern Uganda is the country's most densely populated region, with 226 persons per sq km, yet families continue to expand at a very rapid rate.

The land is not growing, though. And since these families need food, shelter and other resources but have no sound source of income, they march up fragile hillsides, cutting the trees and other vegetation that hold soil to their steep slopes. All it takes is heavy rains to result in disasters like the Bududa one.

Of course, landslides sometimes occur for other natural reasons, like volcanic activity. But local governments might be able to protect people from such threats if the population were smaller. They could build barrier walls, put proper cover on the slopes, build stronger structures, and canals to direct the mudslides. They also would be in a better position to finance such measures. But where would the funding for such multimillion dollar engineering works come from, amid the competing national priorities created by an exploding population?

Mudslides are just one problem this country is facing due to its uncontrolled population growth. Has it ever occurred to you that the poor quality of services you are getting results partly from the fact that population is growing faster than our resources?

Today, the number of people who need health, education, economic, and other services is large and increasing, so the amount of resources, personnel, and infrastructure required to meet these needs is also increasing.

Already, Uganda is off track in achieving the Millennium Development Goals because it lacks the resources her swelling population needs. And the problem will get worse before it gets better. With women on average bearing 6.7 children, the population is increasing 3.2 per cent each year. It is projected to reach 55 million by 2025 and 130 million by 2050, according to the Population Secretariat.

The only practical solution is to apply pressure on the population clock brake pedal to slow this process. One of the proven ways of slowing population growth and realising quality life as envisaged by the MDGs is family planning. But sadly, 41 per cent of married women of reproductive age in Uganda want to space or limit births but are not using contraceptives.

A good place to start turning things around, then, would be to solve Uganda's unmet need for family planning. In fact, the benefits of family planning would grow over time.

A USAID analysis based on Uganda's 2006 Demographic and Household Survey shows that a lower birth rate would mean fewer children would require education, and as a result, there would be lower costs for Universal Primary Education. At the same time, studies have shown that when girls stay in school longer, they delay child-bearing, effectively slowing down population growth.

In short, family planning would mean better educational opportunities for girls, and that would benefit not only the girls themselves, but future generations as well. And we might minimise more disasters too.

Mr Kakaire is a journalist attending a fellowship at the Makerere University School of Public Health

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