Climate Change, Environment, Family Planning

Ethiopian Farmers Talk about Population Pressure

“We farmers don’t have access to family planning and we are moving more and more into poverty.”

As the world focuses on the outcomes of the meeting on climate change that just concluded in Poznan, Poland, I am sitting in a workshop in Nazret, Ethiopia, listening to a panel of farmers talking about the effects of climate change on their lives – less rain, lower crop yields, malaria, no milk for their children. The farmers, from Amhara Region in the Rift Valley, talked about population pressure. They are acutely aware that farm sizes shrink with each generation and speak eloquently of the need for access to family planning so they can have fewer children. Rural Ethiopians currently have an average of six children.

Aside from the panel of farmers, the workshop, sponsored by the International Food Policy Research Institute and the Ethiopian Development Research Institute, consisted scientists discussing the feasibility of African agriculture adapting to climate change. In the midst of graphs on decades-long trends in rainfall and temperature, the issue of population pressure has only been mentioned in passing, until the session with the farmers.

I am in Ethiopia with Malea Hoepf Young and Kimberly Rovin, colleagues from PAI, working with the research organization Miz-Hasab to initiate a study on climate change and whether family size and access to family planning figure in to people’s perceptions of resilience and adaptation to changing climate conditions.

Ethiopia just released its census results, which claim a 2007 population of 74 million, but this is a subject of lively debate wherever we go — many say the county’s population is more likely closer to 80 million. In the workshop focusing on research findings, only one presentation mentioned family planning. The Ethiopian Wetlands and Natural Resources Association described their integrated wetland watershed management, which works at the community level to protect the environment and halt biodiversity loss in the face of climate change. The project includes activities to promote sustainable living for present and future generations. The project is currently being evaluated, but preliminary results suggest that the family planning component of the project has been well received and that contraceptive use, which started at a very low level may have grown to over 30% of married couples. Compared to the latest DHS (2005) that puts rural contraceptive prevalence at 11%, these results from the integrated project are remarkable, and illustrate how much Ethiopian men and women in remote areas want contraception, and will use it to plan their families when they have the information and access necessary to do so.

Unmet need for family planning in rural Ethiopia is high at 36%. That means over one-third of women in rural Ethiopia want to stop childbearing or space their next birth by at least two years, but they are not currently using contraception. Simply put, as a result of lack of access to family planning, Ethiopian women are having more children than they want.

More than eight in ten Ethiopians earn their living from farming, much of it rain-fed and highly vulnerable to drought. Also, as families grow over time, plots are divided into smaller pieces that are less able to support the families that tend them. As the farmers on the workshop panel are telling us, climate change, combined with population pressure and other factors are having a tremendous impact on their lives. In addition to improving agriculture, meeting the existing demand for family planning can make a critical contribution to improving the lives of rural women and their families and also to easing the effects of population pressure. Integrated population, health and environment (PHE) projects that link interventions to meet a range of needs, including the desire for smaller families, show great promise. Ethiopia has a new and dynamic Consortium for Population, Health and Environment that is working to expand such promising programs. As the global community decides what programs qualify for adaptation funds, integrated interventions that include family planning should be high on the list of adaptation strategies, providing benefits for families and the environment for generations to come.

2 Responses to “Ethiopian Farmers Talk about Population Pressure”

  1. charles

    C. Teller, PRB Scholar, in response to Karen Hardee’s blog 2008/12: “Ethiopian Farmers Talk About Population Pressure”
    Karen rightly picked up on the neglect (and even avoidance) of population issues in IFPRI’s Ethiopian Climate Change, Vulnerability and Adaptation studies ( However, having studied these issues for the last 17 years in Ethiopia, and found similar results to the IFPRI ones (looking explicitly at demographic dynamics and vulnerability to drought), I feel we need to a more contextualized analysis, and to distinguish between the macro issues of high population pressure on natural resources and land, and the micro issue of large family size and family planning.
    The macro issue (see IFPRI Discussion paper 828, Temesgen Deressa et al, Oct. 2008) found lower vulnerability to climate change in the most highly densely populated Southern Region (also highly drought-and hunger-prone), associated with its relatively “higher access to technology and food market, its highest irrigation potential and its literacy rate”. The Ethiopian press made front-page headlines in December concerning these regional differences in vulnerability, and I happened to be in the South where colleagues were disputing some of these findings for their own highly vulnerable region.
    The micro issue (see IFPRI Discussion paper 798, Yesuf et al, Dec. 2008) is indirectly addressed by the finding that larger household size, male headed and older heads of household and number of relatives in the same village, increase the probability of adapting to climate change. Larger family size means greater likelihood to address land, oxen and labor shortages at peak times, and obtain non-farm employment.
    Our own Addis Ababa University research (Institute for Population Studies, Center for Development Studies) has found how important but complex both the macro and the micro level population, drought vulnerability/adaption and food insecurity/malnutrition processes are. In one in-depth study in the South, rural key informants as well as household heads in this region tend to associate larger population size and rapid growth with development, modernization, physical protection against enemies, and more health and education services. At the same time, rural parents recognize the increasing burden of feeding, clothing and finding land, cattle and jobs for their average completed family size of 5 surviving children. Moreover, at the Government’s SERA Vulnerability Research Project, our teams of rural researchers found similar results: that key resilience and positive coping strategies to drought were more likely in larger families with available adult labor. They were more involved in off-farm diversification and migration strategies were often at work in the hunger season.
    The good news, on the micro side is that the important predictor of large families, desired family size and wanting additional children, is declining in rural areas (see EDHS, 2000 and 2005), that under-five mortality has declined rapidly, age at marriage is rising significantly, and that current use of family planning has gone up very sharply (with availability of the contraceptive injectables) from the 11% in 2000, and is probably over 30% in the Amhara Region (where that farmer quoted comes from; see recent large scale JSI/ESHE and Global Fund surveys, 2008).
    The bad news on the macro side, is that average arable farm land has now shrunk to around one-quarter of a hectare, often on eroding land, and that 84% of the population still resides in rural areas, many still highly vulnerable to drought, low technologies and climate change, and that over 13 million people are still in need of humanitarian and safety-net food, health and water services (FEWSNET, Feb. 2009).
    Karen is right in pointing out that the new and dynamic CIPHE networking is working to raise awareness of the need for integrated programs, both at macro food-environmental as well as micro family health levels. Let’s hope that influential international policy researchers will follow suit and not neglect these complex population and development issues.

  2. Anonymous

    way to keep the spotlight on such a serious situation in Ethiopia.
    and props to PAI for doing this, and to the webmaster at PAI for such a good format on your website.

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