CAIRO (AFP) — With three babies born every minute and a record population density on its inhabitable slices of land, Egypt is struggling under the weight of a demographic crisis.
"Demographic growth is a major challenge for our generation, and all those to come," President Hosni Mubarak warned at the opening of the National Population Conference on Monday.
Authorities' response to the problem remains piecemeal, with unofficial calls for a Chinese-style family planning policy which would limit families to two children.
With an average of 3.1 children per woman, rising to five children in rural areas, the Arab world's most populous country had seen a declining birth rate until 10 years ago.
Since taking power 27 years ago, Mubarak has witnessed the number of Egyptians double, with one third of the population now below the age of 15.
The population increases by 1.3 million every year and will soon increase by two million a year, specialists say.
At its current pace, the population is expected to more than double by 2050 to reach 160 million, in a country with an inhabitable surface of 45,000 square kilometres (17,374 square miles) -- roughly equal to Switzerland.
"Egypt, outside the desert, has the highest population density in the world, with 2,000 inhabitants in every square kilometre (0.4 square miles), twice that of Bangladesh," says population specialist Philippe Fargues of the American University in Cairo (AUC).
A quarter of all Egyptians, some 20 million, are packed into the chaotic megacity of Cairo, whose expanding suburbs are constantly nibbling away at cultivable land.
Even the rich are fleeing the increasingly crowded and polluted city and heading to luxury, heavily irrigated, gated compounds outside the capital.
And despite the country's economic growth rate standing at seven percent, the benefits have failed to trickle down, with not enough work for the half-million new job seekers who enter the market every year.
Demographic growth is "a serious obstacle to our development efforts and our efforts at raising standards of living," Mubarak told participants at the conference, the first such meeting in 20 years.
"It is not that progress has not been registered, it's just not fast enough. The population should never have reached this level," said Hoda Rashad, head of the social research centre at the AUC.
She says it is now time to pursue a family planning campaign targeting education, health and women's work.
"Even families of comfortable means prefer three children and not just two," she told AFP.
Egyptian Health Minister Hatem al-Gabali said on Tuesday that the country had set aside 480 million Egyptian pounds (around 90 million dollars) to cope with its overpopulation problem through family planning.
The plan aims to bring the number of children per family down to 2.4 by 2012 and 2.1 by 2017.
He told participants at the population conference that "small families could save the country some 170 billion pounds (31 billion dollars) in investments.
"It is a make or break task that requires action to correct misconceptions among youths, who still do not seem to grasp the problem of having three, four or five children," the minister said.
Anlysts expect the population to reach 100 million by 2025. If the current rate of reproduction is lowered, it may be limited to 120 million by 2050.
Fargues believes the population growth is a sign of a "society blocked from changing by its poverty and sexual taboos".
"The key is to promote a real presence of women in the workforce."
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