Thursday, February 02, 2017

A Post on Yemen and Malthus Circa 2004


Back in 2004, I wrote a short piece about Yemen, back when no one had heard of it, and no one could find it on a map.

Earlier this week, an American serviceman was killed there while engaged in a anti-Al Qaeda operation that Donald Trump rushed forward without bothering to gather proper intelligence or secure proper military backup.

Why is Al Qaeda in Yemen, and what are the long-term prospects for that nation. Here's what I wrote more than a dozen years ago:

Yemen and Malthus

Can a country's population growth be so extreme that something extraordinary (either very good or very, very bad) is likely to occur?

Without a doubt.

A good case in point is Yemen, a notoriously poor country with an extra-ordinarily high rate of population growth.


Before going too far, it's worth describing the country of Yemen.

The short story is that Yemen is the back of the moon.

Bounded by Saudi Arabia to the north and Oman to east, two-thirds of Yemen is truly uninhabited desert. Yemen's flora and fauna (such as it ever existed) have already been wiped out by a combination of over-cultivation, deforestation and desertification. The only fauna you are likely to see today are birds migrating to and from east Africa.

Less than 4 percent of the population of Yemen has a telephone, and the average income in Yemen is less than a dollar a day.

Yemen has three potential resources: a little oil, a lot of untapped seasonal rain water, and a very strategic location.

Oil reserves are not extensive, but they could provide some hard cash in the short term.

At the moment Yemen is too undeveloped to make much use of its strategic location on the Bab el Mandeb, the strait linking the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, one of world's most active shipping lanes.

Some agricultural potential might be realized if the country had cash and a working government (it has neither) to build water cachement systems to trap the huge quantities of water that are dumped on the country every year during two monsoon seasons.

Right now, Yemen is mostly known as the place where the U.S.S. Cole was bombed, where Al Qaeda terrorists hang out, and whose government was found smuggling in scud missles from North Korea.

Population growth rates in Yemen are phenomenal. The UN estimates that during the next 50 years Yemen's population will grow from 18.3 million to 102 million -- or to a population that will be 24 times larger than it was in 1950.

Of course population growth in Yemen will not stop in 2050, but continue forward after that due to age structure. As demographer Paul Demeny notes in the March 2003 issue of "Population and Development Review, "Even if fertility dropped well below replacement level, the growth momentum [in Yemen] would keep population size during the second part of the century much above its 2050 mark."

Population growth in Yemen is being driven by a decline in mortality that has, so far, had very little impact on fertility. As Demeny notes, "Around 1950, expectation of life at birth in Yemen was 32 years for the sexes combined -- worse than it was in Europe some 200 years earlier. By 2000 it had almost doubled, reaching an estimated 62 years. Among males expectation of life exceeded that in Russia by 2 years. Yet fertility stubbornly stayed at a very high level, estimated by the UN (admittedly on a rather weak statistical base) as an average of 7.6 children per woman."

In short, while Russia's total fertility rate had fallen to 1.2, to more than make up for the population growth caused by a mortality decline, there was not a similar fall in Yemen's birth rate even though the two nations now have similar mortality rates. The result: incredible rates of population growth.


Demeny notes that "If [Yemen total fertility rates] remained at 7.6, the rate of population growth [in Yemen] would creep up from an annual rate of 4 percent to 4.5 percent by 2050. This would bring Yemen's population to 159 million, 37 times the size it was a century earlier. This would seem, prima facie, a wholly infeasible outcome."

Demeny notes that Yemen is an unlikely candidate for a rapid decline in fertility (as the UN projections assume will occur) because women have very low social and economic status, and very low levels of literacy. In addition, I would note another factor: the central government of Yemen is so weak as to be virtually non-existent outside of the capitol.

Demeny -- hardly a fear monger -- writes that in the case of Yemen, "The likelihood of a Malthusian crisis in the twenty-first century is increased by the high growth potential the 2050 age distribution will still represent. Barring a major rise in mortality, the Gordian knot could be cut by introducing the assumption of an early and even more rapid fertility decline. But the forces that would generate such a behavioral change would have to be made explicit. They are anything but obvious."

In short, if fertility is going to fall fast enough in Yemen, a strong central government is going to have to be created, and incentives enacted to encourage men and women to embrace a one-child family.

Neither prospect is on the horizon.

What is on the horizon? More hunger.

The FAO notes that the number of malnourished in Yemen has increased from 4 million (1991) to 6 million (1999) [see this ]

While literacy rates are rising (see link above), they are still very, very low for women and modern contraceptive use remains at 10 percent.

A U.S. diplomat of my acquaintance with considerable experience in Yemen has jokingly said to me that their only way out is to "sell out to the U.S. and become a huge U.S. airbase."

At least I think it was a joke ... who knows?

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