How will Tanzania cope with 275 million people?

The Washington Post has just published a fascinating analysis as of new UN population projections up to the year 2100. It’s worth reading the whole thing, not least because it comes with some beautifully simple visualisations of the data, using my new favourite online tool: DataWrapper. 

As usual, however, my main interest is in Tanzania, which the Post’s article touched on briefly, along with the chart above:

Take a look at Tanzania, which is today one of the poorest countries in the world. As of 2000, it had 34 million people; California’s population was the same that year. Today, Tanzania has about 45 million people. By 2100, its population is projected to be 276 million – almost the size of the entire United States today, and by then one of the largest countries in the world. The stories of other African countries may be similar: Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of Congo are projected to be almost as large.

Even if this demographic prediction does turn out to be accurate, we have no way of knowing what a massively populous Tanzania of 2100 would look like. If it remains as poor and troubled as it is today, it doesn’t bode well: water and food resources will only get scarcer as it’s divided among more and more people, as will whatever money the government makes exporting natural resources. That typically leads to instability and a higher risk of conflict. But, as in Asia, there’s also a real opportunity for the future Tanzania to put its growing population to work building the economy. The question of how to get there, though, is not an easy one.

It’s pretty safe to assume that Tanzania’s population will not follow precisely the trend suggested by the UN. I’m no demographer, but I would be surprised if any country, anywhere, has ever combined that rate of population growth with the resulting high level of population density. But it probably won’t be far off being accurate either.

Demographic change on this scale will bring unprecedented pressures. How will Tanzania cope with rapid increase in demand for public services, land and natural resources?

To manage this effectively and fairly will require a high level of political maturity across the board. Otherwise, there’s a high risk that competition for resources could escalate into political instability and violence.

Just as a couple of practical examples, the time to get a proper grip on water resource management and land rights is now.

On a more positive note, there’s a chance that this rapid growth could be good for Tanzania – a “demographic dividend” resulting from a high proportion of the population being of working age. But again, without the requisite political maturity from Tanzania’s leaders, this could be a wasted opportunity.

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