Sunday, May 23, 2010

Niger: ticking time bomb of babies

I have blogged before about Niger's remarkable demographics: 21% of its population is under the age of four. Niger has by far the highest total fertility rate in the world; women are having huge families there.

As a consequence Niger has the fastest growing population in the world. In the wild, a species will naturally expand in population if environmental conditions are right, i.e. there are sufficient supplies of food, space and water, and a low threat from predators or disease. For example, if foxes are introduced to an island with many rabbits, foxes rapidly reproduce and take advantage of the food supply. As foxes multiply, their total demand for rabbits rises. Meanwhile the total number of rabbits is falling from the growing predator numbers.

Finally the foxes have eaten so many rabbits that the rabbit population is in decline, and the foxes run out of food. A famine follows, the surplus fox population dies off, pressure on rabbits declines, rabbits multiply again and the cycle starts once more.

Humans are prone to these cycles too, but agriculture and technology stave off famine in modern societies. This would cause exponential human population growth, except modern contraceptives and family planning keep population growth low. Developed countries have low mortality and low fertility. Completely undeveloped tribal cultures have high mortality and high fertility. Both keep population sizes roughly constant.

Developing countries, where modern medicine and improved agriculture have begun to reduce mortality but culture still values large families, have high fertility and low mortality, causing rapid growth.

This is what Niger is experiencing. Niger is the fox, growing like crazy and eating all the rabbits. And like the fox, it is beginning to run out of food:

Reports from northern Nigeria say a growing number of people from Niger are crossing the border into Nigeria because of the food crisis at home. A BBC correspondent in the northern Nigerian state of Katsina says many women and children from Niger are seeking shelter with local families. Aid agencies say about seven million people in Niger - about half the population - are short of food.

Niger's government has started distributing food, so their response is to keep mortality low. At first this may seem dangerous, since this is simply allowing continued exponential growth. Thankfully humans tend to respond to falling infant mortality rates by reducing their family size, so as mortality declines, population growth tends to eventually stabilise.

This does not save Niger now, though. It already lacks the food to sustain half of its population, yet that population is growing at explosive speed. Niger desperately needs a dramatic drop in fertility. Jared Diamond's Collapse blamed unsustainable population growth in Rwanda for the 1990s genocide. It remains to be seen if Niger can defuse the demographic bomb by reducing fertiliy, or if it will collapse into war, famine and disease.


  1. This is the most ridiculous analysis and analogy I have ever heard to explain Niger's problems. Obviously you have never visited the (full) grain storage warehouses of Elhaji's in Niger, or reflected on the excessive "fees" imposed upon grain dealers. If you had you would see that the problem has nothing to do with birth rates and everything to do with oligopoly and grain cartels.

  2. Ah! Fair point - as I mention on the earlier posted linked to above I know nothing about Niger beyond these statistics. I had noticed months ago that Niger had a skewed population - 21% under the age of four, huge families, etc. Populations with a very high proportion of young men have been observed to be more likely to suffer violence and instability. Since Niger had an extremely young population, I wondered if I could expect to see serious violence in Niger; when I started reading news of internal political violence it got me wondering if this was it...

    However it is incorrect to write off fertility rates as a root of this problem.

    Expansion in food supply tends to be linear, but population growth is exponential. Humans are prone to the same environmental pressures as all other living creatures and subject to the cycle of growth and collapse. The only reason the rich countries haven't collapsed into famine long ago is their decline in FERTILITY. Niger hasn't experienced this decline.

    Look at Ireland's population growth in the 20th century. Population rose by about a quarter from 1907 to 2007. Over the same period Kenya's population rose 14-fold. Of course Kenya's population growth puts great pressure on its food supply.

    Look at Niger's population growth:

    1939 - 3.1 million
    1959 - 3.85 million
    1969 - 4.74 million (we can see the demographic shift kicking in)
    1979 - 5.97 million
    1989 - 7.73 million
    1999 - 10 million
    2009 - 14 million

    Their population almost doubled in 20 years - and we're not to believe population growth is part of the problem?

    Have you read Jared Diamond's "Collapse"? The scenario I describe - unsustainable population growth, depletion of resources, famine and collapse of society - has happened again and again to human civilisations all over the world. Easter Island, Maya, Pitcairn Islands, Norse Greenland, 1990s Rwanda and so on; Niger is subject to the same pressures.

    Fertility is the key to all this. Where the average woman has over 2.1 children, population will expand so long as mortality from disease and starvation remains low. In most developed countries TFR is below 2.1, so many are experiencing population decline. In Niger it is at 7.68.

    So if that grain supply you mention is freed up, what then? Can Niger support another doubling of population in the next twenty years? What is their upper limit - 28 million? 56 million?

    In the long run the demographic shift will probably be completed, and fertility rates will fall as they have in almost all other countries. Until then, there will be very rapid population growth, and all the environmental and social problems associated with it.

  3. (Thanks for the comment though!)


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.