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The baby looks withered and unnaturally aged as it struggles for breath in its mother’s cradling hands. Within hours, it has succumbed to malnutrition, according to the national news magazine that published its picture—in 1993.

Eye in the Sky

Images of suffering innocents in Somalia seized the attention of the world seven years ago, propelling a U.S.-led intervention to provide humanitarian relief. Now it’s happening all over again: another cycle of poverty, war, drought—and a fourth horseman that whips on the other three: overpopulation.

Why do rational adults continue to bring babies into places of starvation? The answers involve issues of human behavior that are both obvious and subtle.

“It seems illogical to us,” says population analyst Tom Merrick of the World Bank. “But people go on with their lives even though they’re under what seems to us such desperate conditions. Many of them, especially in very poor societies, haven’t gotten introduced to the idea that you can do anything about controlling fertility.”


Today, an estimated 8 million people in the Horn of Africa are at risk of starvation. Three years of insufficient rains brought on by cooler sea temperatures, complicated by two years of war between Ethiopia and Eritrea, have devastated the region. International aid workers give lurid reports of rotting corpses, fields of dead cattle, and weakened children being eaten by hyenas.

Tribal clashes have complicated food distribution in Kenya, where an estimated 80 percent of the livestock has died. Feuding warlords in Somalia, which has been without a central government since 1991, has made that country a difficult and dangerous place for aid workers.

Nevertheless, the latest catastrophe has triggered a massive response of international humanitarian assistance: An estimated 5,000 tons of food per day is estimated to be arriving through the port facilities of the neighboring country of Djibouti.

What is missing is an understanding among many inhabitants of the region—and other developing areas of the world—of the fact that it will all happen again, and again, because in the long run the land simply can’t support the number of people who are trying to live on it.

“Traditional people value a lot of children,” says Asha Mohamud, who helped run Somalia’s small family-planning effort in the late 1980s. “Your whole value as a person in traditional cultures like Somalia depends on how many boys you bring into this world to carry your name. We were trying to teach some realization of the value of life, and to make them think about the quality of life they could achieve with fewer children.”

The old attitudes persist in an age when improved medical care has dramatically reduced infant mortality and increased life expectancy for adults, and thus led to population explosions. As American Enterprise Institute demographer Nicholas Eberstadt puts it, developing countries are being overpopulated “not because people started breeding like rabbits. It’s that they stopped dying like flies.”


Alarming predictions during the 1960s that the world faced a “population time bomb” have largely disappeared. Population growth has slowed or even stopped in Europe, North America and Japan, according to the United Nations World Population Fund.

Nevertheless, global population is still rising at a rate of about 78 million people per year, most of it taking place in the world’s poorest and least-prepared regions. These include sub-Saharan Africa and parts of South and Western Asia.

The HIV/AIDS epidemic now scourging parts of Africa and the Indian subcontinent has helped account for a reduction in the UN’s most recent world population projection. It is currently set at 8.9 billion in 2050, rather than the 9.4 billion predicted four years ago.

However, because of continuing high fertility rates, even HIV/AIDS is not a panacea for overpopulation. Despite the epidemic, the population of Botswana—where 20 percent of the population is affected—is expected to nearly double by 2050.


Experts say that the keys to solving both problems—the AIDS outbreak and over population, are eerily similar. In both cases they call for education, better reproductive health care, and more equality between men and women.

“If women have a chance to earn income, they’re less likely to have large families,” says William Ryan of the World Population Fund. “We estimate that the number of children in many developing countries would fall by a third if there were access to the kinds of services that people need.”

The UN’s current approach to overpopulation was formulated at a 1994 International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, at which delegates from 179 countries agreed that “empowering women and meeting people’s needs for education and health, including reproductive health, are necessary for both individual advancement and balanced development.”

“The Cairo conference put the focus on meeting individual needs rather than target populations,” says Ryan. “When people see that they have better health care, and their children can survive, they wind up choosing to have smaller families.”

Eye in the Sky is a weekly series that brings you the story behind the headlines using satellite imagery, remote sensing, aerial photography, and maps. This feature is developed by National Geographic News with the sponsorship of the National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA) and Earth-Info. Check out maps and imagery at

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•  The United States is the only developed country where large population increases are still projected—mostly because of immigration.

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The story of Somalia’s short-lived experience with population control in the late 1980s shows the difficulties of operating such programs in war-torn regions such as the Horn of Africa.

“I was amazed that many people were getting married in the midst of civil war and death, and definitely a lot of children were being born,” says Asha Mohamud, who, as an employee of the Ministry of Health, helped administer the U.S.-funded national family planning program.

The Horn of Africa was then a theater of Cold-War intrigue. Owing to President Siad Barre’s preoccupation with military affairs, social programs suffered from neglect if not outright hostility.

“We were trying to implement the family planning program and raise awareness,” says Mohamud, “but every day we were being contradicted by some government person.”

Nevertheless, she says the program was making progress in changing traditional attitudes and behavior—until Barre’s government fell in 1991, bringing even Mohamud’s modest efforts to a halt.

Somalia still has no central authority, and is run largely by warlords and tribal governments.