Yemen faces population explosion 'time bomb'

A population growth rate that is one of the highest in the world is hampering efforts to combat poverty and unemployment.

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SANA'A // Yemen is facing a security threat, described by one expert as a "time bomb". It is not al Qa'eda, the Houthi rebellion in the north or the secessionist movement in the south, though its influence cuts across all three.

It is found in millions of households across the country, such as Bahaja al Hamily's in Medinat al Layl, a slum on the outskirts of Sana'a. "We didn't intend it," she said. "We didn't take in to account what we earn." She gestures to the skinny toddler on her arm. "I had an operation after the ninth." Yemen has one of the highest population growth rates in the world. According to its National Population Council, a government body, 700,000 people - almost equal to the entire population of Djibouti - are added to the country each year. Its current population of 23 million people is set to double in the next two decades.

High population growth rates are often associated with developing countries, and the ensuing youth bulge is often blamed as a factor in social instability. But when a country is suffering from a natural resource crunch and faltering economic growth, not to mention three internal conflicts, the picture becomes alarming. "If the government doesn't do something, there will be a disaster," said Himyar Abdulmoghni of the United Nations Population Fund in Sana'a.

According to the NPC, if population growth remains unchecked, the ailing economy, with an unemployment rate of around 40 per cent, will have to create more than 2.2 million jobs in the next 25 years. The country will need an extra five billion cubic metres of water - which it does not have - and to maintain already patchy health services it will have to train and employ an extra 10,000 doctors.

The pressure of rising population levels, which have tripled since 1975, is already being felt in areas such as education, where there is reportedly one teacher for every 80 children, and transport. Abdo Seif, a development specialist with the United Nations Development Programme, said population growth was the most critical problem facing Yemen. "It's the root cause of other problems," he said. Youth unemployment, exacerbated by the entry of several hundred thousand people in to the labour market every year, is widely believed to be an underlying cause of civil unrest in both the north and south of Yemen.

The international community is particularly concerned that the lack of economic opportunities is making young people vulnerable to radicalisation. Youth unemployment "is a security threat," Mr Seif said. "They either go into organised crime or insurgencies." Mohammed al Muthaimi, an economics professor at Sana'a University, told Agence France-Press that youth unemployment was offering extremist organisations such as al Qa'eda the chance to recruit young people "by handing out much-needed money", though there is little evidence to back this up.

Although there are hopes that more aid will come Yemen's way as a result of the international attention it has received since the attempted bombing of an airliner on Christmas Day by a militant apparently trained by al Qa'eda in the country, it will be difficult for any interventions to keep pace with population growth, said Ramon Scoble, a Sana'a-based development consultant. In the time it will take for a local job creation scheme, for example, to be implemented, the number of people needing jobs will have hugely increased. "The numbers at that end of the scale far outweigh any band aid that's put on," Mr Scoble said.

The government has started to tackle the problem, and began to promote family planning in 2005, hoping to cut the population growth from its current level of three per cent to 2.2 per cent in 2025. However, the assistant secretary general of the National Population Council, Motahar Ahmed Zabarah, said they were unlikely to meet that target, and instead have settled for 2.5 per cent. The problem is partly one of resources. For a cash-strapped government struggling with so many immediate concerns, there is a difference between recognising something as an issue to be dealt with and allocating a budget to it, Mr Zabarah said.

Another obstacle, he said, is a lack of available contraceptives and family planning services in rural areas. Unmet need is around 50 per cent, he said. Ahmed Shuja al Din, a demography expert at Sana'a University, said there also needed to be a better understanding of people's attitudes towards family planning and how the services were used. "The social relationship is very complicated, they need to know what people are thinking," he said.

In the cramped living spaces of Medinat al Layl, a makeshift suburb whose 5,000 inhabitants are mainly migrants from rural areas, many people cited religion as a reason for their large families. "I believe the Quran says [family planning] is haram," said Thurayah, a 30-year-old mother-of-nine. Her husband's monthly income is about 20,000 rials (Dh350) and this was not enough to support their children, she said. "Sometimes there was desire for children, sometimes not, but they come."

A teacher, who did not want to give his name but said he had 20 children, also said he believed Islam forbade family planning. While there is now broad consensus among religious scholars that Islam allows for the right to plan one's family, and Muslim countries such as Iran and Egypt have pursued relatively successful programmes, it is still a challenge to overcome deep-rooted beliefs.

The Yemeni government enlisted the help of the mosques to try to counter the perception that family planning is haram, and it is thought to have been successful in reaching a majority of people, at least in urban areas. But some societal values regarding the importance of children are hard to overcome. "Population growth is coming from poor, non-educated families," Mr Abdulmoghni said. "Especially families where the woman is not educated."

Another prevalent belief is that family planning has negative health consequences. "I only wanted three children," said Ahmed Thabet, a father of seven, "but I don't believe in family planning. It is expensive; having drugs can affect the health of the mother and also the father." Although the rural areas have the highest birth rates, it is the cities that have the highest population growth, as the lack of economic opportunities in the agricultural sector drives people to places like Medinat al Layl.

According to the UN population fund, the number of 10 to 25-year-olds will rise from 8.6 million to 20.8 million in the next 25 years if nothing is done to curb growth. It is not clear where these young people will live, how they will be fed, watered, educated and employed; or how they will be prevented from discontent, rioting, forming gangs and joining armed insurgencies. If the national family planning policy fails to make any change, Yemen will soon find out.

"A person can't just rely on their salary," said the teacher in Medinat al Layl when asked if his job would support his 20 children. "You must find a second job. And everyone must believe in Allah's fortune." * The National