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Famine: is there a lesson in Africa?

The famine ravaging so much of Ethiopia and Chad today is frequently attributed to drought. But this drought may be only a triggering event. The root cause of Africa's crisis, says Worldwatch Institute analyst Lester Brown, is population growth faster than on any continent in history, widespread soil erosion and desertification, and a failure by African governments to adequately support agriculture. Brown, an agricultural economist, cites research suggesting that these human pressures on the natural environment may even be driving a change in Africa's climate that could perpetuate and expand the continent's suffering.

There is much that other developing countries could learn from studying events that led to the African tragedy, he writes in the Washington, D.C.-based Worldwatch Institute's second annual State of the World report, a book published last week. And even African leaders, he believes, could benefit by borrowing from some of the policies that are allowing countries like China to evade a crisis of similar proportions.

Brown points out that as recently as 1970, Africa was essentially self-sufficient in food. What fostered a breakdown in the continent's ability to feed itself has been a decline of nearly 1 percent per year in per capita grain production since 1968 -- in part due to an annual population growth for the continent approaching 3 percent. Since populations growing 3 percent per year multiply 20-fold in a century, explains Brown, it would be hard for any land -- even one sparsely populated at midcentury -- to survive this with its biological support systems and social institutions intact. A sign of Ethiopia's impending breakdown appeared in 1978 when the U.S. Agency for International Development reported "an environmental nightmare unfolding before our eyes": Ethiopia's topsoil eroding at an annual rate in excess of 1 billion tons, as its growing masses denuded their land to provide firewood for warmth and cooking.

More worrisome, Brown says, is that there are no apparent changes occurring "on their the agriculture or the family planning side of the food/population equiation that will arrest the slide in per capita food production." In fact, things could get substantially worse. "There is now evidence," he notes, "that population growth may be driving climate change in Africa."

Meterologist F. Kenneth Hare, now provost of Trinity College at the University of Toronto in Canada, described how this might occur in a monograph on climate and desertification for the United Nations' World Climate Programme two years ago. In an interview last week, Hare said, "The continued [almost 20-year] decline in [Africa's] rainfall might be due to the exhaustion of stored water in the continent." It's an extrapolation from the idea, promoted by others, that a rise in the continent's surface reflectance of solar radiation--from denuding land-use practices--might decrease rainfall. "We might therefore the looking at a permanent decrease in the rainfall," he says, "induced by human activities."

China, with similar pressures, has increased its per capita grain production--despite a shrinking cropland base and still-growing population -- by limiting population growth to 1 percent per year, half the rate of the early 1970s. Enforcement hasn't been easy, however, and reports of rampant female infanticide and community-forced late-term abortions cloud its approach with ethical questions. But it was only after calculating how living standards for all its people would suffer under even a "zero population growth," two-child policy that China decided it had no other choice.

China's tentative success holds out hope, Brown says, that if they can change their policies soon, many Andean states and the Indian subcontinent need not follow in Africa's starving footsteps. More importantly, he points out, "countries that wait too long [to limit their population growth] find themselves in a situation where they have to slam on the brakes." By then, as China learned, no easy solutions remain, he notes, because "there are only two ways to bring population growth down--by lowering birth rates, or increasing death rates." Forced to choose between Ethiopia's and China's handling of this dilemma, he says, "There's no question: I'd choose China's."
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Title Annotation:population growth problems
Author:Raloff, Janet
Publication:Science News
Date:Feb 23, 1985
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