Global population growth fears put to the test in Africa's expanding cities

John Baliruno, of Mpigi in central Uganda, has fathered nine children. "I never intended to have such a big number," he reflected last week. "I with my wife had no knowledge of family planning and ended up producing one child after another. Now I cannot properly feed them."

Uganda's population of 34.5 million is expected to treble by 2050. Baliruno, 45, fears for the country's future. "The environment is being destroyed by the growing population," he told the Associated Press. "Trees are being cut down in big numbers and even now we can't get enough firewood to cook food. In the near future, we will starve."

Africa, the world's poorest continent, also has its highest birth rate. A woman in sub-Saharan Africa will give birth to an average of 5.2 children in her lifetime. Africa's population of 1 billion is predicted to more than double in 40 years to 2.3 billion, accounting for about half of projected global growth over that period.

In a year that has seen famine return to the Horn of Africa, there is anxiety that a continent already feeling the pain of climate change will be unable to produce enough food, or especially water, to meet its soaring needs.

ActionAid has warned that the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi and South Africa are the most vulnerable countries to a future crisis. The NGO's chief executive, Joanna Kerr, said: "How sustainable our expanding population is will depend entirely on how we tackle the interlocking crises of climate change, dwindling resources and rocketing food prices. This year's famine in east Africa was a harrowing example of how overexploited ecosystems, erratic weather and soaring food prices, when left unchecked, have catastrophic consequences for poor people."

Africa is growing fast because it is young. The top 10 youngest populations in the world are all from the continent, led by Niger (an estimated 48.9% below the age of 14), Uganda and Mali. Many will have big families, knowing that despite ongoing efforts to combat malnutrition and HIV, there is a strong risk many of their children will die.

Lyndon Haviland, a senior health fellow at the US-based Aspen Institute, said: "Children have high mortality. If you believe there's a high likelihood of losing your children, you're going to have more in the hope that at least one or two will survive. We have to give people the belief that their children will live."

Birth rates could be brought down, she added, with improved healthcare, access to modern contraception and, crucially, investment in girls' education because this results in them marrying later and having fewer children.

The most tangible result of population growth in Africa is a shift from country to city. A continent that had fewer than 500,000 urban dwellers in 1950 may have 1.3 billion by 2050, it was reported last year by UN-Habitat, the Nairobi-based United Nations agency that monitors the world's built environment.

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