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Population growth in Uganda

By Mubatsi Asinja Habati

The difference 30 years makes

In 1980 Kamwokya was a bushy swamp, populated by hunters and migrant Bafumbira yam growers. The area of the Ministers’ Village in Ntinda looked like a forest reserve, its bushes alive with the music of playful monkeys. Kiwatule was then a remote village, best known for witchcraft. Kisasi, Kyebando, and Ntinda were covered with matooke and coffee gardens.

The original city suburbs of Kololo and Nakasero were for a select elite, Makerere was for dons, and Naguru Housing Estate for low-level officers.

Seventy year-old Joseph Kaddu was there for all of it; “There were only about 10 homes in Kamwokya at that time. Today the swamp has been drained. The once forested area of Ntinda as you go down to Kyambogo is now full of bungalows – called the Minister’s Village,” Kaddu narrates.

Thirty years later, the landscape is unrecognizable. Forests and gardens have been replaced by mansions, swamps by slum settlements, every square inch of it covered in frantic human activity.

But some things have not changed much. Not far from Kamwokya, Mulago Hospital remains Uganda’s main referral hospital, just like it was in 1948, when Uganda had only 5 million people. Built in 1913 with 20 beds, Mulago which is Uganda’s largest hospital now boasts of 1,500 beds, after numerous expansion drives, with bed occupancy exceeding 2,000 at any one time, and overcrowding now an unremarked upon reality, as it remains the pain port of call for most Ugandans seeking expert health care.

Since 2000, the government has toyed with the idea of decongesting the Mulago by constructing satellite hospitals in Kawempe and Kiruddu. This has largely remained on paper, yet a healthy population is the country’s greatest asset.

As the UN announced the arrival of the 7 billionth human being on earth on October 31 – of which 34.5 million are Ugandans – the implications of the multiplying population for sustainability, urbanization, poverty, hunger, wars, child mortality, access to health, education, clean water, better roads, electricity, services and skills as well as employment opportunities remain a particular cause for worry.

Currently Uganda is not doing well in provision of most of these services. Teachers, traders, and medics are constantly threatening to strike, as growing population competes for diminishing resources.

“People are a critical asset in development, because human capital is a key factor for socio-economic development. This capital is contributed through production as well as consumption of the products of their labour,” says this year’s State of Uganda’s Population Report, released recently. “However, to achieve this, the country must possess a quality and healthy population. The problem with a fast-growing population is not the growth itself, but rapid, unplanned growth.”

Uganda’s population has seen an unprecedented surge over the last 50 years, more than tripling, from 9.5 million in 1960, to 34.5 million currently, each woman having 7 children on average – one of the highest fertility rates in the world.

Unfortunately, the most fertile are uneducated women, averaging 7.8 children while their educated counterparts are 3.9. This worsens poverty and inequality and undermines economic growth. In a written speech, Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi said at the report’s launch that for government, high population is a “crucial resource that can be harnessed for national development.”

But the report contests this view;

“Rapid population growth may make many developing countries more vulnerable to civil conflict, especially when combined with high rates of urban population growth and shortages of cropland. 80 per cent of civil conflicts between 1970 and 1999 occurred in countries where 60 per cent or more of the population was under age 30, and these countries are most likely to face autocratic governance,” says the State of Uganda’s Population 2011 report.

The stress is already being felt in the cities’ systems.

“The growth of urban populations throughout Uganda is placing particular stress on municipalities that already lack the infrastructure to meet current water and sanitation needs. Even in densely populated Kampala, 85 per cent of households rely on pit latrines… if the trend persists, there shall be several challenges to future growth and structural transformation unless serious measures are taken to convert it into a population dividend.”

If the rate of population growth can be reduced from 3.2% to 2.4%, annual per capita GDP growth could rise by between 0.5 – 0.6%, according to the report. But that would take another 30 years.

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