On Sunday night (6/12/2015) the big digital screen atop Egypt’s official statistical agency on the road to Cairo airport flicked over to 90,000000. Egypt has turned ninety — million people, that is. The screen itself is a futile exercise in raising awareness about, arguably, Egypt’s greatest challenge.
The ninety-millionth Egyptian was born around 10 pm local time. He (it was a baby boy and was reportedly named after the president) is one of four new born every minute.
Egypt is rapidly galloping towards the one-hundred million at the rate of two million more every year.
This is Egypt’s other ticking time bomb.
The first being turbulent and unpredictable politics, and its war on Islamic terror with no certain outcome.
The rapid population increase is made worse by the fact that nearly the entire population is crammed into the narrow Nile valley, which represents only 6 percent of the country’s total area; the rest being uninhabitable deserts. To make matters worse, unplanned urban sprawl is already eating into the limited arable land in the countryside. This way Egyptians appear like a man destroying the very source of his own survival and which made life possible along the Nile for millennia.
Not only that, but lack of jobs and development in the countryside have forced millions of the rural poor to seek a living in Cairo or Alexandria, turning the once modern and cosmopolitan cities into jungles of concrete blocks besieged by slums on all sides.
The country as a whole ranks among the worst top twenty when it comes to quality of life : violence, income inequality corruption and unemployment make Egypt one of the most stressful in the world, according to a Bloomberg survey. (ttp://www.bloomberg.com/visual-data/best-and-worst/most(h-stressed-out-countries ) .
So many of Egypt’s problems come down to this basic equation : too many people have to share a small piece of land and with limited resources. And their numbers are increasing exponentially.
While it is customary to hear dire predictions about Egypt’s future because of its moribund politics or its war against Islamist terrorism, no one seems to be paying attention to its other ticking bomb : the deepening crisis of uncontrolled population growth and limited resources.
After dropping slightly during the past decade of the Mubarak rule, the birth rate has picked up and is now at 2.55% according to government minister who added that the figure was 4 times higher than that of China. Egypt cannot of course apply the (now abandoned) one-child policy of Beijing , because that would provoke the anger of the religious establishment and the wider public, which is just as conservative. Let alone the fact that Egypt is unlikely to enforce such a policy, given its track record of implementing its own laws.
Although Egypt has has had family planning authority for decades, like much else in the Egyptian state, it has little to show for itself.
Given that most of the population increase is among the poorest, it goes without saying that the vast majority of the newborns will be among the least educated and cared for. So progress made by the healthy and well-educated is outdone by the poor, illiterate and malnourished. You don’t need to think long or hard to see what kind of future awaits Egypt, when the poor and ill-educated outnumbers the healthy and well-educated by big margins.
Short of imposing draconian family planning policies the only hope for Egypt lies in expanding the land mass upon which Egyptians and their future offspring can live and prosper. This requires a vision that has been sorely lacking from Egyptian leaders for decades.
Enter Farouk El-Baz, (http://www.pri.org/stories/2013-08-12/egypts-vision-expansion-along-nile-delta ) an Egyptian-American geologist and former NASA scientist who has for some thirty years been trying to persuade Egyptian leaders that the only way to defuse this ticking time bomb is by break free from the confines of the narrow Nile valley.
He calls it the Development Corridor, an ambitious plan to create a parallel Nile valley, west of the current one, that stretches all the way from the Mediterranean coast in the north to the border with Sudan in the south. The entire length of Egypt itself, 2000 km.
According to Mr El-Baz’s vision, the proposed development will draw upon vast reservoirs of water under the desert sands (he provides satellite images to prove it) and will link up with the current valley at various points stretching between 10 to eighty kilometers horizontally. He also proposes electricity and water lines running along the new valley and a fast road that will eventually link Egypt with sub-Saharan Africa promoting trade and tourism.
Mr El-Baz has been appointed a member of a board of scientific advisors to President Sisi. But apart from lofty promises, we have yet to see concrete steps by the government to take his vision seriously. No one else seems to have a serious and comprehensive plan to lift Egypt out of its continuous population crisis and defuse the ticking bomb.