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Lessons From Kenya & Malawi on Combining Climate Change, Development, Population Policy

Date & Time

Apr. 8, 2013
3:00pm – 5:00pm ET


5th Floor, Woodrow Wilson Center
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“The combined effects of rapid population growth and climate change are increasing food insecurity, environmental degradation, and poverty levels in Malawi and Kenya,” said Clive Mutunga, a senior research associate at Population Action International (PAI).

Mutunga spoke alongside Abigail Jones of Climate Advisers and Eliya Zulu of the African Institute of Development Policy at the Wilson Center about two new policy reports on incorporating population dynamics – mainly efforts to meet unmet demand for contraceptives – into climate change adaptation policies in Malawi and Kenya.

“This study tackles a critical question,” said Jones. “It asks how should policymakers in sub-Saharan Africa respond to the linkages between population and sustainable development, particularly climate change, to ensure the policy is mutually supportive and is more effective?”

Fast Growth, New Challenges

“Rapid population growth is seen as one of the main barriers to economic development,” said Zulu.

According to PAI, Malawi’s population of approximately 15 million is projected to increase by more than three times to 50 million by 2050. Malawi’s rapid population growth is driven by a high total fertility rate – the number of children born per woman – which was measured at 5.7 today. There is increasing demand for smaller families among Malawians, but access to contraceptives, especially among the poorest, is often limited. While the percentage of married women using contraceptives has jumped from 13 percent in 1992 to 46 percent in 2010, 26 percent of women who would like to postpone child bearing are not using a modern method of contraception, Mutunga said.

Kenya’s population of 41 million is projected to more than double to 97 million by 2050. In 1978, Kenya’s fertility rate was measured at 8.1 – the highest in the world at the time – and is currently projected to level off at 2.9 by 2050. But as in Malawi and elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa, socio-economic status and geographic location often determines access to contraceptives and reproductive healthcare; 26 percent of Kenyan women are still unable to access contraceptives.

Kenya’s large share of young people – 42 percent of the population is under 15 – presents social, environmental  and economic challenges. Young people represent 64 percent of the country’s unemployed, according to the International Labor Organization. An excessively youthful age structure can also threaten national security as more than 90 percent of all societal conflicts from the 1970s to the 1990s occurred in countries with median ages under 25.

Most of the population growth in sub-Saharan Africa will occur in cities, Mutunga explained. This is both the result of urban-to-rural migration and natural population growth. Urbanization, though a good indicator of socio-economic progress, can be a development challenge, especially if it is not well planned for, he said. According to the report, 55 percent of urban-dwelling Kenyans live in “informal settlements,” such as slums and shantytowns. Slum-dwellers are particularly vulnerable to climate change, as they have limited access to housing, food, energy, and sanitation.

Climate Change Exacerbates Food Insecurity

The livelihoods of a majority of Malawians and Kenyans, like most Africans, depend on rain-fed small-scale farming, a practice that is highly vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

Currently, 85 percent of Malawians make their living through farming. Climate change is expected to increase the frequency of severe natural disasters such as droughts and flooding, resulting in more crop failures and food shortages. Already there has been an uptick in these natural disasters, including a flood in February of this year that displaced more than 33,000 people and an on-going drought that began in 2008. Malawi’s population density is expected to increase by a six-fold by 2050, which will exacerbate competition for land and resources. And deforestation will contribute to stress as well, as more than 90 percent of Malawians are reliant on wood for cooking and heating. “Malawi is one of the least resilient countries to climate change,” Mutunga warned.

Kenya faces many of the same challenges plus the added dimension of conflict: ethnic strife over land and water killed more than a hundred people just last year in Tana River County; militants and arms frequently cross the border from Somalia; and there continue to be tensions over national elections, the most recent of which was won by Uhuru Kenyatta this year, who is facing charges from the International Criminal Court for inciting violence in 2007 (though it should be noted that predictions of a return to violence of were proven wrong).

“Addressing population issues may help build resilience to climate change,” said Zulu, by alleviating increasing pressure on land for agriculture.

To Scale-up, Build Independence

“Climate change is a cross-cutting issue that requires effective coordination to mainstream it in various development sectors,” Zulu said. There have been some efforts to integrate population-focused policies and climate change responses, he said, but weak governance structures in the region and a lack of funding have hampered effectiveness. For example, various populationhealth, and environment (PHE) programs have been successful at combining these goals, but they are not easily scalable, he said. There is no specific policy framework in place to coordinate programs and multi-sectoral cooperation.

Zulu stressed the importance of strengthening local capacity and weaning governments off dependence on NGOs and other donors. Because of shrinking aid budgets brought on by the global recession, the “continuity and augmentation of these programs is going to depend on greater budgetary participation by African governments,” said Jones.

“We need to have a much better strategic partnership with local partners,” Zulu agreed, and he applauded Kenya for being the first African country to develop its own national climate change response strategy in 2010.

Both Mutunga and Zulu were emphatic that meeting unmet demand for family planning can produce a “triple win” for Africa. It will slow population growth and thereby reduce poverty by improving health, schooling, and economic opportunities; protect natural resources for more sustainable development; and create greater opportunities for social development.

However, population policies can also be a culturally sensitive issue. As Zulu emphasized, it is “not the duty of governments to tell women how many children to have.” Instead, he urged governments to reduce barriers to family planning and contraceptive use to expand access to those who want to use them, and invest in education, public health, and youth-focused development programs, as empowering and enabling large cohorts of young people can help lift a country out of poverty.

Drafted by Maria Prebble, edited by Schuyler Null


Hosted By

Environmental Change and Security Program

The Environmental Change and Security Program (ECSP) explores the connections between environmental change, health, and population dynamics and their links to conflict, human insecurity, and foreign policy.  Read more

Africa Program

The Africa Program works to address the most critical issues facing Africa and U.S.-Africa relations, build mutually beneficial U.S.-Africa relations, and enhance knowledge and understanding about Africa in the United States. The Program achieves its mission through in-depth research and analyses, public discussion, working groups, and briefings that bring together policymakers, practitioners, and subject matter experts to analyze and offer practical options for tackling key challenges in Africa and in U.S.-Africa relations.    Read more

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