Figure 1: Population trends in the various sub-regions Population remains a major factor for the growth of societies and a significant driving force for development and the future state of the environment. Changes in population numbers over time, demographic characteristics, including migration and urbanization patterns, health, and levels of skill are important considerations. Some of these characteristics are reflected in UNDP’s human development indices (HDI).

The population of the region continues to grow rapidly (see Figure 1), changing from 221 million in 1950 to about 786 million in 2000 (UN Population Division 2003). At a rate of 2.1 per cent annually, Africa is the world’s fastest-growing region and it is expected to have a population of 1 300 million in 2025 (UN Population Division 2005, 2004). This phenomenal rise in population is due to high fertility rates and improved health, as a result of, among other things, improved medical access. This growth will continue to exert pressure on the environment in many ways.

At a rate of
2.1 per cent annually,
Africa is the world’s
region and it is
expected to have
a population of
1 300 million
in 2025.

UN Population Division 2005

The population of Africa is characterized by a large number of persons in the dependency age cohort of 1 to 14 years, and this has multiple implications for ongoing population growth and the direction and pace of development. Although estimates vary, about 43 per cent of the population is under the age of 15 and only 2.5 per cent over 65 (UNDP 2005). The 15-24 age group numbered 149 million in 1998, constituting about 20 per cent of the total African population, and represents a workforce bulge; this can be the basis for more investment, greater labour productivity and rapid economic development (see Figure 2 and Makinwa- Adebusoye 2000). However, youth unemployment is a major problem. At 21 per cent in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) and 22.8 per cent in Northern Africa, the unemployment rate for youths aged 15-24 was twice that of the overall labour force in 2003 (ECA 2005). Therefore, if Africa does not generate more employment and opportunities, and invest in skills and capacity-building this group could place tremendous strain on the economy as well as environmental resources. Investment in human resources development is essential, and could help attract foreign direct investment (FDI).

Figure 2: Africa’s economically active population Rapid population growth and changes in demographic characteristics put pressure on African countries to improve standards of living and to provide essential social, economic and environmental services. These factors also limit their capacity to deal with the problem of poverty. Further, in the absence of cooperation, rapid population growth rates may lead to political and social conflicts among different ethnic, religious and social groups over environmental resources. However, in the long run, population growth rates are expected to decline, for multiple reasons including the HIV/AIDS pandemic and the fact that African countries are addressing issues of population growth in a purposeful and concerted way. In SSA, for example, population growth rate between 1975 and 2003 was 2.7 per cent, and it is expected to slow to 2.2 per cent for the period 2003-15 (UNDP 2005).

among youth is a
particular problem in
Africa. At 21 per cent
in sub-Saharan Africa
and 22.8 per cent in
North Africa, the
unemployment rate
for youths aged
15-24 was twice that
of the overall labour
force in 2003.

ECA 2005

As discussed in Chapter 1: The Human Dimension, Africa is also the fastest urbanizing region of the world. In 2000 the urban population of 318 million was only 38.2 per cent of the total population, whereas, by 2025 the urban population is expected to have risen to 681 million, representing 50.67 per cent of the total population (UN Population Division 2005, 2004). If the shift in spatial distribution of population is not carefully addressed, governments will see the multiplication of poorly-serviced informal urban settlements which are the cradle of crime and in which human vulnerabilities are accelerated by limited access to water and sanitation as well as other social services. This would also result in environmental problems like pollution due to inferior waste management. These challenges are also highlighted in Section 2: Environmental State-and- Trends: 20-Year Retrospective.


Health is a major issue and a critical driving force. It is particularly important in a developing country context.

Since independence many African countries have made significant improvements in health care. This includes expanding access to primary health care, increased spending on the health sector and addressing socioeconomic inequities associated with access to quality health care systems. Across Africa, there were improvements in key health care indicators, such as infant mortality rates and life expectancy. Across SSA, the 1970s saw significant increases in life expectancy, from an average 44 years to more than 50 years. The period of the 1980s and 1990s, however, witnessed cutbacks in health budgets and privatization of health services. These policies exacerbated poverty and thus provided a fertile ground for the spread of infectious diseases and nutrition-related illnesses. Life expectancy was 50 in 1990 and dropped to 46 in 2002 (World Bank 2005a). The current health priorities will continue to influence decisions that impinge on the environment and overall economic development.

Health as a driving force has a direct relationship with environmental management and development. As demonstrated by the impact of HIV/AIDS and malaria, among other diseases, ill health has economic costs, and contributes to increasing poverty. The two most debilitating diseases in Africa, malaria and HIV/AIDS, remain major health concerns. HIV/AIDS affects the economically active population, consequently negatively affecting the potential to realize development and environmental management goals. Given the links between these sectors, as discussed in Chapter 1: The Human Dimension, investments in environmental management may help achieve the health-related targets of the MDGs.