Slowing population growth is necessary to addressing the consequences of climate change in Africa
23 July 2012

Climate change is among today’s top global development challenges. Adaptation and mitigation programs have become a priority for governments and their development partners, especially in developing countries. What is often overlooked in global climate change discussion is the role of population growth and need for stabilising the growth.

Concern for this neglect spurred a meeting of climate change and population experts, as well as civil society organizations, in Kampala, Uganda, from September 13th-14th, 2010.

The meeting, which was organised by the Ecological Christian Organisation (ECO) in partnership with Climate Action Network – Uganda (CAN-U), called for renewed international commitment to population programmes aimed at enabling couples, especially in poor countries, to achieve their desired family size.

Delegates noted that rapid population growth not only increases the number of carbon emitters in developed countries, but also increases the gross cost of climate change adaptation and mitigation programs in the poorest countries, which are also subject to the most environmental damage and other effects of global warming.

In addressing the conference, AFIDEP Director Dr. Eliya Zulu noted that time was ripe to break the international silence on tackling rapid population growth in Africa because efforts to alleviate poverty and provide educational and health services cannot keep up with the expanding needs of the people in these areas.

The population of the ten countries in the horn of Africa and the general East Africa region is projected to more than double from 281 to 596 million by 2050. This growth is primarily due to high levels of fertility, whereby women give birth to at least five children in six of the ten countries.

Dr. Zulu urged governments, development partners, and civil society organizations of the urgent need to prioritize voluntary family planning by ensuring that couples make well informed decisions about the timing and number of children they would like to have.

Even more critically, Dr. Zulu called for universal access to family planning in order to ensure that the millions of African women who want to postpone or stop childbearing altogether have access to effective methods family planning to achieve their reproductive goals.

Dr. Zulu noted with concern the huge inequities in use of modem contraception in the horn of Africa, where, for example, 39%, 18%, 14%, and 7% of married women in Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, and Eriteria, respectively, were using a modern method of contraception.

Dr. Zulu noted that the main reason why many women were not using family planning was not because they wanted to have many children, but because there were many barriers standing between them and access to access contraceptives.

For example, 41% of all married women in Uganda, 34% in Ethiopia, and 26% in Kenya wanted to delay the next pregnancy or stop children altogether, yet they were not using contraception.

Dr. Zulu noted that efforts to achieve universal access to contraceptive use should focus on the most underserved members of the society such as the less educated, the poor in both rural and urban areas, and those located in isolated rural settings, who were bearing between 1.5 and 2 children more than their desired family size.

Programmes need to address the key barriers to family planning, which include: limited access to methods, limited choice of methods, medical and legal restrictions, provider bias, and misinformation about the effects of contraception.

Dr. Zulu also cautioned against the thought that the problem is just about getting contraceptive to the women and urged programs to invest in educating the public and in addressing the many psychosocial factors and cultural beliefs that promote high fertility and undermine the status and autonomy of women in making informed decisions about their reproduction.

Dr. Zulu concluded his presentation by arguing that while the debate on who is chiefly responsible for global climatic change and what should be done to reduce the carbon footprint is critical, Africa’s immediate concern should be to diminish the effects of climatic change and enhance its mitigation and adaptation capacities, and that slowing population growth should be big part of those efforts.

He argued that the guiding principle should be driven by the fact that although “The poorest 1 billion people living on a dollar or two a day contribute only 3 per cent of the world’s total carbon footprint, yet the loss of healthy life-years resulting from global warming could be as much as 500 times greater in Africa than in Europe” (McMichael and others, 2008).

The meeting called for prominence of population issues in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change negotiations taking place in October and December this year and urged for the integration of voluntary interventions to slow population growth into national climate change plans, including National Adaptation Programs of Action (NAPAs).

The meeting participants agreed to create a forum on population and climate change for the Horn of Africa, of which AFIDEP will be one of the coordinating institutions.

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