“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.