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Is Africa overpopulated? The answer by most measures is no. As of mid-2015, the continent as a whole had only 40 people per square mile. Asia, by comparison, had 142 people per square mile; Northern Europe had 60. Critics also point to the how many fewer resources Africa's population consumes versus that of many Western countries and the United States in particular. Why then are so many organizations and governments worried about Africa's growing population?
Extremely Uneven Distribution
As with so many things, one of the problems with discussions about Africa's population problems is that people are citing facts about an incredibly diverse continent. A 2010 study showed that 90% of Africa's population was concentrated on 21% of the land. Much of that 90% are living in crowded urban cities and densely populated countries, like Rwanda, which has a population density of 471 people per square mile. The island countries of Mauritius and Mayotte are much higher than that with 627 and 640 respectively.
This means that the other 10% of Africa's population is spread across the remaining 79% of Africa's land mass. Of course, not all of that 79% is suitable or desirable for habitation. The Sahara, for instance, covers millions of acres, and the lack of water and extreme temperatures makes the vast majority of it uninhabitable, which is part of why Western Sahara has two people per square mile, and Libya and Mauritania have 4 people per square mile. In the southern part of the continent, Namibia and Botswana, which share the Kalahari desert, also have extremely low populations for their area.
Low Rural Populations
Even a low population might constitute overpopulation in a desert environment with scarce resources, but many of the people in Africa who are in areas of low population live in more moderate environments. These are the rural farmers, and their population density is very low as well. When the Zika virus spread rapidly across South America and was linked to severe birth defects, many asked why the same effects had not already been noted in Africa, where the Zika virus had long been endemic. Researchers are still investigating the question, but one potential answer is that whereas the mosquito carrying it in South America preferred urban areas, the African mosquito vector was prevalent in rural areas. Even if the Zika virus in Africa had produced a significant rise in the birth defect microcephaly, it may have gone unnoticed in Africa's rural districts because the low population density means that very few babies are born in these areas in comparison with South America's populous cities. Even a significant rise in the percent of children born in microcephaly in a rural area would produce too few cases to attract notice.
Rapid Growth, Strained Infrastructures
The real concern, though, is not Africa's population densities, but the fact that it has the fastest growing population of the seven continents. In 2014, it had a population growth of 2.6%, and it has the highest percentage of people under 15 years (41%). And this growth is most evident in those areas that are the most populated. The rapid growth strains African countries' urban infrastructures - their transportation, housing, and public services - which in many cities are already underfunded and over-capacity.
Another concern is the impact of this growth on resources. Africans do consume far fewer resources at present than Western countries, but development could change that. More to the point, Africa's population growth and its reliance on agriculture and timber are compounding the enormous soil erosion problems facing many countries. Desertification and climate change are also forecasted to increase and they are compounding the food management issues created by urbanization and rapid population growth.
In sum, Africa is not overpopulated, but it does have high population growth rates in comparison to other continents, and that growth is straining urban infrastructures and producing environmental problems that are compounded by climate change.
- Linard C, Gilbert M, Snow RW, Noor AM, Tatem AJ (2012) “Population Distribution, Settlement Patterns and Accessibility across Africa in 2010.” PLoS ONE 7(2): e31743. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0031743