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Data doesn't support claim that Zambia has world's fastest-growing population

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Does Zambia have the fastest growing population in the world? This is the claim made recently by the country’s vice-president, Guy Scott.

According to The Post newspaper, Scott “suggested that Zambians should be encouraged to slow down on child-bearing so that the country drops from being the fastest-growing population in the world to at least the third or fourth position”.

The article went further, citing another unnamed source stating that “Zambia has the highest rate of growth of population of any country in the world”. The claim was repeated in a subsequent report published by The Post.

Speaking to Africa Check, Scott said he had been quoted accurately by The Post about the claim that Zambia has the fastest-growing population in the world. He said the claim originated from a best-selling book called Ten Billion which was written by Stephen Emmott, a scientist and head of computational research at Microsoft. Citing United Nations (UN) projections, the book states that by the year 2100 Zambia’s population will have increased by 941%.

The origins of the claim

In 2011, the UN Population Division projected that Zambia’s population, which according to the 2010 Census, then stood at 13,092,666, would reach 140,348,000 by 2100.

The UN’s projection was based on statistical models developed by Adrian Raftery and colleagues at the University of Washington Centre for Statistics and the Social Sciences. Raftery told Africa Check “Zambia is one of the countries that will have the fastest population growth over the rest of the century”.

“There is uncertainty about the 2100 projection, but there is no doubt at all that Zambia’s population will increase greatly by the end of the century,” Raftery said.

According to Raftery, Zambia’s population is projected to increase rapidly due to a high fertility rate of about six children per woman. He said the rate has been declining very slowly.

“The UN projects that the fertility rate will decline in the future, but gradually, to about 2.8 children per woman in 2100,” he said. Total fertility worldwide, he said,  is currently at 2.5 children per woman.

François Pelletier,  who heads up the population estimates and projections section at the UN, said it would be incorrect to use the projections to claim that Zambia currently has the fastest-growing population in the world.

Pelletier said there was uncertainty about the trajectory of the fertility rate in Zambia as shown in this graph. Due to this, “the future population could also differ”.  According to Pelletier,  the 2011 data projected an increase of 811%, not 941% as stated in Emmott's book. He said revised 2012 projections suggest that Zambia’s population could increase by 840.5% by 2100. These projections suggest "Zambia is the country with the second highest growth rate in the world, after Niger".

"Based on the 2010 [to] 2015 period, the population of Zambia was estimated to grow at a rate of 3.2 per cent per year, which aside from countries with significant migration levels (e.g. Oman, Qatar), is amongst the highest growth rates in the world," Pelletier said.

Charles Banda, national programme specialist for UNFPA Zambia, said the 2011 projections were made using 2000 population data. Using 2010 Census findings, the population is projected to increase to 27-million in 2035.

A forecasting system by the Pardee Centre for International Futures estimates the population will reach 36 million by 2060. This is lower than the UN’s estimates which show that by 2050, the population will be 45 million.

A 2010 analysis shows that Zambia’s population growth will be lower if the fertility levels decline.

What the data shows

Africa Check examined population growth rate data from the World Bank, Unicef, the United Nations Population Division and the Population Reference Bureau.

According to the most recent available data from the World Bank, Zambia’s population growth rate in 2012 was at 3.2% putting it in eighth position worldwide after Oman (9.1%), Qatar (7.1%), South Sudan (4.3%), Kuwait (3.9%), Niger (3.8%), Uganda (3.4%) and Eritrea (3.3%).

Unicef measured population growth between 1990 and 2011 for different countries. Over the period, Zambia’s population grew at 3%, a rate lower than those of Qatar, Afghanistan, Niger, Uganda, Burkina Faso, Mali, and Eritrea.

The 2012 population revision by the United Nation Population Division breaks population growth rates into five-year-periods. Between 2005 and 2010, Zambia’s population grew at 2.8% leaving the country on position 30. Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait and South Sudan top the list in that order.

According to the Population Reference Bureau’s 2012 Datasheet, Zambia’s population growth rate is 3%, which is lower than that of Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, Mayotte, Uganda, Angola and Yemen.

Zambia’s Central Statistical Office projects that the population of Zambia will continue growing at an average annual rate of growth of 2.8% between 2011 and 2035.

Conclusion: Zambia does not have the fastest-growing population in the world

It is important for politicians neither to exaggerate nor to underplay the issue of population growth in countries such as Zambia.

Certainly, UN statistical models suggest that Zambia could have one of the highest population growths in the world by 2100.

However, data shows that Zambia does, in fact, not currently have the fastest-growing population in the world as claimed by Scott, nor does it have “the highest rate of growth of population of any country in the world” .

There is also some uncertainty about the projections and the United Nations says  that while Zambia certainly has "amongst the highest growth rates in the world", the data cannot be used accurately to claim that Zambia has "the fastest-growing population in the world".

Edited by Julian Rademeyer

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