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Population, Development, and Environment in Ethiopia

Decades of rapid population growth in Ethiopia have contributed to over-farming and deforestation, which have degraded the environment and undermined development. Sahlu Haile and Charles Teller discuss these linkages.

Date & Time

Apr. 14, 2005
12:00am – 12:00am ET


Decades of rapid population growth in Ethiopia have contributed to over-farming and deforestation, which have degraded the environment and undermined development. At an April 14 ECSP meeting, Sahlu Haile, senior program advisor and Ethiopia country representative for the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, joined Charles Teller, senior technical advisor for USAID Office of Population and Reproductive Health, to discuss these linkages. Echoing his article in ECSP Report 10, Haile argued that although the Ethiopian government has developed many strong policies, it has failed to implement measures to stabilize population growth and reduce environmental degradation, which he called the "two most important issues in our development challenge."

Population and Environment Linkages

Ethiopia's population of 72 million is increasing by 2 million people, or 2.5 percent, each year. According to Haile, this growth rate "hides some regional variation that is extremely important." Eighty-five percent of the population lives in rural areas, mainly in the central and northeastern highlands, where population growth and poverty are much higher than in urban areas.

As the population increases, more and more land is deforested and over-farmed. Forest coverage has declined from 40 percent 75 years ago to only 3 percent today. People must travel farther and farther to find firewood, the principal fuel, which reduces time spent farming. Without firewood, many resort to burning animal dung, instead of using it to fertilize their depleted soil. Without trees to help hold it in place, the soil erodes from the steep highlands. As a result, many previously habitable areas have now been transformed into dry lands and deserts.

This vicious cycle exacerbates the effects of Ethiopia's droughts, leading to severe and ever more frequent crises. The 2003 famine affected more than 13 million people, and at least 6 million people now suffer from permanent food insecurity. But drought is not entirely to blame, as Haile wryly pointed out: Ethiopia "faces famine when we have a bumper harvest and when we have drought" since the amount of arable land per person is so low (1/2 hectare for 8 people). Ethiopia's population growth compromises its ability to achieve the productivity gains necessary to break the cycle and eradicate extreme poverty and hunger.

This situation is highly unstable, and could make Ethiopia vulnerable to future conflict. Haile pointed out that the country meets six of the eight demographic criteria associated with instability and conflict in The Security Demographic (Cincotta et al., 2003):

  • a high proportion of young adults;
  • rapid urban population growth;
  • diminishing levels of per capita cropland;
  • high mortality rates among working-age adults;
  • differential growth rates among ethnic groups; and
  • rapid migration.

The youth bulge is especially prominent: since Ethiopia's school age population of 21 million is 29 percent of the population, Haile believes that "how we address the youth challenge today will determine whether we are heading in the right direction or not."

Women's Health: The Key to Development

The poor state of women's health is also a barrier to development. Ethiopia is one of the lowest ranked countries in Save the Children's 2004 "Mother's Index." One out of every 14 women dies from complications during pregnancy, and 114 infants die for every 1000 live births. A majority of girls get married at an early age, continue child-bearing until late in middle age, and are not encouraged to use modern family planning methods. Reproductive rights are improving, however: new laws allow women to terminate pregnancies for compelling reasons, set the legal marriage age at eighteen, and prohibit traditional female circumcision practices. Yet, Haile said, "the unmet need for family planning in Ethiopia still remains at 36 percent, which means [there is] still work to be done."

Increasing girls' education and women's opportunities can help improve women's health and stabilize population growth. Although Ethiopia spends a "laudable" 19 percent of its budget on education, reproductive health is not yet well integrated into the curriculum. As in other countries, Haile observed, "young girls get less opportunities than boys because of domestic responsibilities." Although Ethiopia has increased its overall primary school enrollment rate from 20 percent in 1993 to an impressive 62 percent, female secondary school enrollment remains staggeringly low, at only 14 percent.

Developing Policies, Implementing Solutions

Underlying these problems is the Ethiopian government's poor implementation of policies. Although the government has committed itself to reducing poverty and meeting the Millennium Development Goals, its programs are not horizontally integrated, and focus on immediate crises rather than long-term environmental and population problems. Haile estimated that Ethiopia will need $122 billion in the next decade to achieve the Millennium Development Goals, but less than 0.5 percent of this amount has been allocated for reproductive health needs.

Although Ethiopia has developed an environmental policy that recognizes the impact of population factors on the environment, "like most of our policy documents, this one… suffers from lack of implementation," said Haile, who noted with frustration that Ethiopia's government seems to be "more interested in developing policies than implementing them." Government support is critical, since "any development initiative that is not adopted by the government" has little chance of success. "If we want to…have a national impact, and a long-term sustainable impact, the government has to adopt that program. That is what we are advocating."

Health programs also suffer from lack of implementation. As the leading cause of death in Ethiopia, HIV/AIDS is "damaging the country's socio-economic fiber," warned Haile. In urban areas, patients occupy more than half the hospital beds. Despite sharing important features with family planning programs, HIV/AIDS programs are being implemented vertically. Although Ethiopia's government policies encourage integration, Haile claimed that international donors insist on keeping these programs separate because they "feel the reproductive health community is out there to grab the resources" away from HIV/AIDS. "The integration of reproductive health in the HIV/AIDS program is probably the single most important challenge we are facing in Ethiopia today," he declared.

Current Trends and Future Opportunities

Offering a historical and sociological perspective, Charles Teller, senior technical advisor for USAID's Office of Population and Reproductive Health, asserted that U.S. foreign policy failed Ethiopia during the Cold War and now the donor community is failing the country again. "There has been some success in isolated areas but in terms of having overall impact on fertility and overall population growth rate…it has been very limited," he maintained. However, in the central part of the southern region, "there has been awareness that population density does matter, that it's related to landlessness, lack of education, unemployment, and out-migration." Now, "USAID is trying to support longer-term development capacity building, including evaluation where we can really see what's working and what's not working." According to Teller, the new USAID famine prevention strategy holds great promise, since it is "quite an integrated and linked approach" including reproductive health and family planning strategies.

Despite the challenges Ethiopia faces, Haile sees opportunities to incorporate population, health, and environment issues into the country's poverty reduction strategies. Democratization and decentralization allow decision-making to occur at sub-national levels, where local authorities are more willing to confront the local population and environment problems they face. In urban areas such as Addis Ababa and Diré Dawa, fertility rates have dropped to replacement levels, and other large towns like Bahir Dar may be approaching these numbers. A small but growing civil society is engaged in poverty reduction efforts that connect population and environment issues. Furthermore, Ethiopia benefits from large donor input aimed at achieving the Millennium Development Goals. These programs must focus on "improv[ing] the quality of life of the population" and not just towards making gains in quantitative statistics. "I'm totally aware that development is not just population and environment . . . but without focus on these two issues we cannot achieve our development goals," Haile concluded.

Drafted by Crystal Chase and Meaghan Parker.


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