Gwynne Dyer: Ethiopia's famine tied to population growth

A quarter-century after a million Ethiopians died in the great hunger of 1984-85, the country is heading into another famine. The spring rains failed entirely, and the summer rains were three weeks late. But why is famine is stalking Ethiopia again?

The Ethiopian government is authoritarian, but it isn’t incompetent. It gives fertilizer to farmers and teaches best practices. By the late '90s the country was self-sufficient in food in good years, and the government had created a strategic food reserve for the bad years.

So why are we back here again? Infant deaths are already over two per 10,000 per day in Somali, the worst-hit region of Ethiopia. (Four per day counts as full-scale famine.) Country-wide, 20 percent of the population already depends on the dwindling flow of foreign food aid, and it will get worse for many months yet. What have the Ethiopians done wrong?

The real answer (which everybody carefully avoids) is that they have had too many babies. Ethiopia’s population at the time of the last famine was 40 million. Twenty-five years later, it is 80 million. You can do everything else right—give your farmers new tools and skills, fight erosion, create food reserves—and if you don’t control the population, you are just spitting into the wind.

It is so obvious that this should be the start of every conversation about the country. Even if the coming famine in Ethiopia kills a million people, the population will keep growing. So the next famine, 10 or 15 years from now, will hit a country of a 100 million people, trying to make a living from farming on land where only 40 million faced starvation in the 1980s. It is going to get much uglier in Ethiopia.

Yet it’s practically taboo to say that. The whole question of population—instead of being central to the debate about development, about food, about climate change—has been put on ice. The reason, I think, is that the rich countries are secretly embarrassed, and the poor countries are deeply resentful.

Suppose that Ethiopia had been the first country to industrialise. Suppose some mechanical genius in Tigray invented the world’s first steam engine in 1710. The first railways were spreading across the country by the 1830s, and at the same time Ethiopian entrepreneurs and imperialists spread all over Africa. By the end of the 19th century, they controlled half of Europe too.

Never mind the improbabilities. The point is that an Ethiopia with such a history would easily be rich enough to support 80 million people now—and if it could not grow enough food for them all, it would just import it, just like Britain (where the Industrial Revolution actually started) imports food. Money makes everything easy.

In 1710, when Thomas Newcomen devised the first practical steam engine in Devonshire, the population of Britain was just seven million. It is now 61 million, but they do not live in fear of famine. In fact, they eat very well, even though they currently import over a third of their food. They got in first, so although they never worried in the slightest about population growth, they got away with it.

Ethiopia has more than four times the land surface of Britain. The rain is less reliable, but a rich Ethiopia would have no trouble feeding its people. The problem is that it got the population growth without the wealth. Stopping the population growth now would be very hard, but otherwise famine will be a permanent resident in another 20 years.

The problem is well understood. The population of the rich countries has grown about tenfold since the earliest days of the Industrial Revolution, but for the first half of that period it grew quite slowly. Many babies died, and there were no cures for most epidemic diseases. Later the death rate dropped, but by then, with people feeling more secure in their lives, the birth rate was dropping too.

Whereas in most of the poor countries the population hardly grew at all until the start of the 20th century. But once the population did start to grow, thanks to basic public health measures that cut the death rate, it grew faster than it ever did in the rich countries.

Unfortunately, economies don’t grow that fast, so these countries never achieved the level of comfort and security where most people will start to reduce their family size spontaneously. At the current rate of growth, Ethiopia’s population will double again, to 160 million people, in just 32 years.

You’re thinking: that will never happen. Famine will become normal in Ethiopia well before that. No combination of wise domestic policies and no amount of foreign aid can stop it. And you are right.

What applies to Ethiopia applies to many other African countries, including some that do not currently have famines. Uganda, for example, had five million people at independence in 1960. It now has 32 million, and at the current growth rate it will have 130 million by 2050. Uganda is only the size of Oregon.

History is unfair. Conversations between those who got lucky and those left holding the other end of the stick are awkward. But we cannot go on ignoring the elephant in the room. We have to start talking about population again.

Gwynne Dyer’s latest book, Climate Wars, was published recently in Canada by Random House.




Sep 1, 2009 at 1:44pm

OK, I'll bite.

"if you don’t control the population, you are just spitting into the wind," says the imminent Gwynne Dyer.

Well, pray tell, fellow, who is the "you" in your equation and exactly how is the Ethiopian population supposed to be controlled?

By forced abortions or something along those totalitarian lines?

If so, then that would be against the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. For instance, how about this one right out of the gate: Article 1 - All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood. And so on.

And while the likes of China doesn't give a rat's butt about those rights, we sure do. And by that "we" I include you, Gwynne. As civilians of a western country protected and guided by that declaration we are morally obligated to view worldly problems through the same lens and spirit that created the declaration, similarly in seeking solutions.

Otherwise, to say and do differently would be hypocritical and a shameful admission that human rights aren't really for everyone.

So then, if you want to talk population then please provide an analysis with commentary that incorporates the human rights of the Ethiopian people, however difficult that may be.
- Coyote

Gwen Your Wrong

Sep 2, 2009 at 5:41am

You obviously have never been there. They live off of nothing. The average income is somewhere around $110 US/year. It's not that having more costs more to raise/feed...they mostly grown their own food. It's that fact that the rains DID NOT COME this year which means the Teff grain DID NOT GROW. It's that simple. Now go back and sit on your comfy couch, drinking your fine wine, and try not to think about how much you do have....They don't care that they are poor. You would never know it by living there. But they simply can't eat if the grain does not grow. Who is to blame for that?

Tsehay Demeke

Sep 2, 2009 at 2:10pm

What this author carefully avoids to suggest is, killing Ethiopians. A Nazi mentality.

Ethiopia need good governance and democracy. The river Nile alone can feed the entire region.

The likes of Gwyne Dyer are meddling in African affair and offer poison.
Population explosion in China and India did not create famine.
Gwynne Dyer will not utter a word about China or India's population.
What a sham theory - population growth = famine.
I wonder if Gwynne Dyer is one of those anti-abortion guy only in his home town ?


Sep 3, 2009 at 1:38am

Tsehay Demeke - Read the damn column again; Dyer goes some length to say that population growth does not equal famine. Population growth in a country that can't support it with its own agricultural system and can't afford to import will have famine.

Gwen Your Wrong - Read the damn column again.


Sep 3, 2009 at 2:28am

Mr Dyer has correctly analysed the basic cause of Ethiopian famine. Population is the biggest problem facing the world today. Famine would not have occured if Ethiopia had produced surplus in previous years and built up stocks for bad years such as the current one.The problem is if population grows rapidly most of the current production is used in consumption and little surplus is left for saving and investment which are necessary for economic progress. A large population also imposes a heavy burden on other resources.Those who feel that a large population is not a problem, answer the following question honestly.Suppose you owned a two storeyed house and want to rent out the first floor. Suppose two families approach you.One family has four members and the other eight members.Other things being same which family would prefer to have as your tenant?


Sep 3, 2009 at 7:54am

All of you that have commented on this article are splitting hairs. It is obvious that you have your own reasons to attack Gwynne, could it have been another article that you did not agree with?

Gwynne is just stating the facts. There is nothing here to agree or disagree with. He is not secretly advocating to "kill" anyone, and the other person who brought up the human rights code - it is easy for us to judge everyone else by our yardstick. If a totalitarian government is needed (I'm not saying it is), then that is what is needed... besides, the US props up a shitload of murderous regimes (eg. Libya, Egypt) so for us to bemoan the choice of government of another, rather peaceful country is hypocritical at best.

In any case, China had a population boom, granted, but it was tightly monitored and controlled by the government, so mentioning China in this discussion as an example of where Gwynne's theory "fails" is irrelevant. Ditto for India, who reaped the rewards of being in the commonwealth. Come on people, don't be so quick to jump off your seats. What Gwynne says in this article is true, and if you guys can't or won't see it then tough.


Sep 3, 2009 at 10:57am


Isaac (Pen name)

Sep 3, 2009 at 6:23pm

Famine has been an issue throughout human history, irrespective of demographic trends and geographic regions. Compared to periods such as the 70's and mid 80's, I would have to say that there has been a scaling down of famine in Ethiopia while population has been growing. Its important to consider that population growth will be tappering off in Ethiopia as urbanization and rural-urban migration pick up.

I suggest that caution must be taken when applying the Malthusian argument of doom to Ethiopia and indeed any other country as it immensely water's down geopolitical and histroical factors when explaining the causes of famine.

The Reverand

Sep 5, 2009 at 1:43pm

It's really irritating to see the comments from people who simply didn't read the artiocle. He made no suggestion of government controls on population; common sense should inform every individual that in an economic climate where starvation is rampant, and food shortages have become endemic, that having large families is inherently counterproductive. Simple equation:

Less food + More people = famine.
Ignoring that fact won't solve the problem.


Sep 9, 2009 at 11:50am

I question your equation.
World food production keeps going up not down. The earth is a closed system. So:
Lowering food production is the only way to effectively cut population growth unless there are strict birth controls.