Sitting in her sister’s apartment on a noisy Cairo street, Rania Sayed says she one day hopes to leave a city that is becoming more congested as Egypt’s population ticks up to 100 million, a milestone it will pass next month.
Like many others, she wants to move to one of the new satellite settlements being built for a booming population whose rapid growth President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has identified as one of Egypt‘s biggest challenges alongside violent campaigns.
“I want to move them [her two children] to a place where people have better mentalities, where there is education,” said the 36-year-old resident of the Ard Al Lewa district, where rows of apartment blocks rise above dusty, unpaved streets.
“Unfortunately, things are very difficult in places like this … so I hope to be able to live to a good social standard.”
Egypt’s 100 millionth person is expected to be clocked up on the official statistics agency’s digital counter in central Cairo in February.
The newborn will join a nation where six people in 10 are under 29 years old, said Aleksandar Bodiroza, representative of the United Nations Populations Fund in Egypt.
Many Arab and African countries are struggling with rising populations. But in Egypt, the pressures are acute, because 97 percent of its people live on just eight percent of its territory, crowded along the Nile River, Bodiroza added.
Creating new space for housing, schools, and hospitals is a priority as Egypt’s population grows by 2.5 million people a year, he said. In inhabited areas, 1,400 people are packed into every square kilometre.
The biggest problem is jobs. The workforce will reach 80 million within 10 years, says the World Bank.
But to create enough jobs, annual economic growth needs to be at least triple the population growth rate, said Radwa El-Swaify, head of research at Pharos Holding for Financial Investments, a Cairo financial firm.
Based on population growth of 2.5 percent, this would require 7.5 percent growth in gross domestic product (GDP), compared with the government’s forecast of up to 5.9 percent for the current fiscal year.
In addition, Egypt’s economy could be hit by water shortages caused by climate change and by a dam on the Nile River being built upstream by Ethiopia.
Infrastructure, including roads and public transport, will also come under pressure as the population grows.
“Thirty years ago, this whole area was agricultural land,” said Nabil Rawash, 60, who also lives in Ard El Lewa.
“But with the overcrowding and population growth, people started coming here to build,” he added, standing in a street packed with people and cars.
Officials say they have managed to bring down fertility rates thanks to a “Two is Enough” public health campaign challenging the tradition of large families in rural areas.
The campaign is aimed at more than 1.1 million poor families with up to three children. The Ministry of Social Solidarity has trained volunteers to encourage people to have fewer children.
“During 2019, we have conducted 2,680,000 home visits,” said Desiree Labib, project director at the ministry. “Among these visits, 407,000 women have asked to be referred to family planning clinics.”
She pointed to a UN study that found the fertility rate dipped to 3.1 in 2018 from 3.5 in 2014.
“If we apply more discipline so that families have less children, we can reach fertility rates of 2.1 by 2032,” said Abdelhamid Sharaf El Din, a senior statistics official.
That still means the population will grow to 153 million by 2052, but if the fertility rate were 3.4 it would hit 191 million, he said.
Either way, the government needs to do something about congestion in Cairo, home to about one in five Egyptians. It is planning to start relocating ministries as soon as June.
But for many, moving there is not an option due to lack of transport and jobs, said Timothy Kaldas, non-resident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy.
“The over-centralisation of Egypt’s state and economy has led to this overwhelming concentration of Egyptians in one metropolis,” he said.