Is the population the problem of Nigeria

Demographic change

Kathrin Schwarze-Reiter

Kathrin Schwarze-Reiter works as a science editor for the news magazine Focus. She studied geography in Bamberg, Hamburg and Venice.

Roland Preuss

Roland Preuss is the political editor for the Süddeutsche Zeitung. He studied history, philosophy and economics in Freiburg and Edinburgh.

It's getting tight: by 2050, ten billion people could be living on earth. What that means for Niger in West Africa, but also for Europe. A report.

Niger has the highest birth rate in the world: a woman has an average of 7.3 children. (& copy picture-alliance / dpa)

"I only have four," says Salamatou Baubacan. Four children emerge from the circular brick hut, stand next to their mother, squint under the thatched roof at the midday sun that is scorching from the sky. Four children, that still sounds impressive for a 20-year-old. But then child number five, child number six and child number seven step through the corrugated iron door: If strangers, and white people at that, ask them about it, Salamatou Baubacan is rather uncomfortable with her large number of children. She then hides half of her offspring.

Rich is someone who has many children

In fact, the young woman from Niger has already given birth to eight children, the first of which died in the womb, and the youngest are twins. Her parents married Salamatou Baubacan when she was eleven, and she became pregnant for the first time when she was 13. No one has ever asked her about her own wishes. She is now 20 and still young, her husband is already 42. Salamatou Baubacan will have more children: "There is no limit for us. Inshallah, God willing, we will have more children." Prevent? It's out of the question. The family lives in the Kollo district; in rural Niger, children are considered workers, status symbols and pensioners. Those who have a lot of money are not rich here. Rich is someone who has many children. Children bring respect to parents.

Mothers with six, nine or 15 children are not uncommon in the West African country. Niger is the country with the highest birth rate in the world, a woman has an average of 7.3 children. Niger is an extreme example, but the country is still representative of many African countries south of the Sahara: Despite high child mortality rates, its population is growing rapidly, much faster than expected a few years ago. In autumn the United Nations (UN) had to revise its predictions of how many people will live on earth in the future, upwards again. The world population will grow by 2.2 billion by 2050, to 9.8 billion people. What this means in the age of new and worldwide migration and refugee movements is obvious - it will get tighter on earth. Also in Europe.

Merkel: "We have to deal centrally with Africa"

The main reason for the strong population growth is in Africa. About 1.25 billion people currently live on the continent. According to the UN forecast, there will be 1.6 billion in twelve years, and 2.5 billion in the middle of the century - twice as many as today. They are people who need schools, doctors, jobs, people who have hopes and are looking for a future. Things don't look any better in the Middle East. Women in Iraq, Yemen or the Palestinian Territories bear an average of four children. The population growth on Europe's neighboring continent Africa and in the neighboring region of the Middle East is dramatic.

Development of the world population (1900 to 2015)
The world population has increased rapidly since the second half of the 20th century. (& copy Süddeutsche Zeitung)

The development concerns politicians, development workers, health and education experts, scientists. If the wrong decisions were made in the face of population growth and climate change, "the continent risks a social and economic catastrophe," warns the UN Children's Fund. Angela Merkel sees it similarly. The Chancellor recently said that there is too little economic growth for the growing number of Africans in many regions of the continent. She demanded: "We have to deal centrally with Africa."

For a long time, population experts had spread confidence; they were seeing the first fruits of progress and development. The more the states modernize, the more affluent they become, the smaller the families become: the birth rates in many developing countries fell. Even where you wouldn't have expected it, in India, Brazil or Iran. In 2009, the Economist magazine wrote that humanity will reach its peak in 2050 with a population of nine billion. This proves to be obsolete in 2018.

"Those were the days of optimism. For a long time there was hope that everything would be okay," says Reiner Klingholz, director of the Berlin Institute for Population and Development. He fears: "In the meantime, one must expect that humanity will not stop growing until the end of the century - possibly later." Rather later, now also estimate the UN. In Niger, where around 21 million people live today, it should have reached 66 million by 2050. "The country's resources cannot do that," warns Klingholz. "Most of them have to emigrate or they will die of starvation or disease."

A family can hardly support themselves from the meager harvest

Salamatou Baubacan cooks rice over a wood fire in front of her hut, she suspects nothing of all this, she has to live her difficult life every day. The ground of their property is hard as stone, her husband Hamidou and they have pounded the desert sand, built a mud wall and a fence made of branches around the small courtyard with the hut. The family live in this hut. The couple and the seven children share a room of ten square meters. They have wedged two large beds and a chest of drawers into them, the doors are crooked on their hinges. Five children huddle on one bed to sleep, a perforated mosquito net dangles over the mattress, it offers little protection against the mosquitoes that transmit malaria. The parents and the other two children sleep in the other bed, they have to get along without a net.

Sweeping up the dust that settles on everything and everyone in the hut would be pointless. In the Sahel zone the steppe merges seamlessly into the Sahara, the sand is everywhere, penetrates every crack, covers hair, skin and clothes. Because of the desertification, grain, vegetables or other crops can only be grown on three percent of Niger's endless landscapes. The Baubacan family is still lucky - they live near the Niger River. It washes over the fields in the rainy season. Hamidou Baubacan grows potatoes, papayas and rice in the floodplains. But he can hardly support the family with the meager harvest. The rainy season has been delayed for several years, the river remains dry longer, the plants in the fields wither, the Baubacans are starving. A twin weighed just 1,500 grams at birth, and one of the neighbors' babies died of malnutrition.

What does Salamatou Baubacan want? "My children should have a good life and always have enough to eat," she says. She doesn't know what all her children should really live on. The field by the river cannot feed everyone. "Maybe my children have to look for happiness elsewhere." The farmer's wife heard that life outside of Niger should be better; she suppresses the fact that she may have to send her children abroad.