How will Iraq handle its surging population?

Despite Iraq's growing population, the government does not seem to have plans in place to contain the rise, develop employment and expand cities.

al-monitor Displaced Iraqi children, who fled from Fallujah because of Islamic State violence, stand during a dust storm at a refugee camp in Ameriyat Fallujah, south of Fallujah, Iraq, June 16, 2016.  Photo by REUTERS/Ahmed Saad.

Topics covered

unemployment, poverty, population, mosul, is, austerity

Jul 28, 2016

Iraq's population growth rate has declined in the past two years, but it is still among the top 10 in the world, according to CIA statistics

Despite the country's lack of security or political stability, and the 251,000 Iraqis who have been killed since 2003 when the United States and its allies invaded, the population has grown significantly. On July 16, the Ministry of Planning announced the country’s population has topped 36 million. In 2003, that figure was estimated at between 23 million and almost 26 million.

Iraq's gender distribution, the ministry said, is 50.5% men and 49.5% women, and population is growing quickly at a rate of almost 3% per year. The working-age population in Iraq, aged 15-64, represents 56.6% of the total population, while those aged 5-14 represent 25.3%. Only 30% of the people reside in rural areas, with the other 70% in urban areas.

Iraq already suffers from high poverty, unemployment and malnutrition rates. To make things worse, some think the government does not appear to have realistic plans to handle any of it.

Rizan Sheikh Dalir, a member of parliament's Committee on Women, Family and Children, says the Iraqi parliament simply has not discussed the country’s population growth. She told Al-Monitor, “The issue should be carefully studied in order to find a way out before it turns into a crisis. If long-term plans to halt it and deal with the current situation are not developed, poverty and unemployment will be widespread in the future.”

However, Abdul-Zahra al-Hindawi, spokesman for the Ministry of Planning, told Al-Monitor, “A number of population-concerned official institutions are closely following this matter, such as the Supreme Council for the Population, headed by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, and the National Committee for Population Policies.”

Indeed, he noted, “The government adopted a birth control plan that resulted in a decline in population growth over the past two years. Growth decreased from 3.2% to 2.8%.”

But the rate is still high and Hindawi acknowledged the large population increase. Part of the problem, he pointed out, is Iraq's battle with the Islamic State (IS). “The Iraqi government developed a plan to handle such an increase. Yet, the Islamic State organization's occupation of Iraqi cities, such as Mosul and Ramadi, since 2014 has prevented the implementation of these plans.”

On whether the ministry has long-term development plans to handle the population explosion, Hindawi replied, “We are working on several plans, including one being prepared with the United Nations. But first we need to eliminate IS before we embark on the implementation of these plans.”

Other problems plague the country as well, including early marriages, which contribute to overpopulation and are caused by social compliance to tribal norms rather than the state laws prohibiting early marriages. 

Sociologist Watheq Sadeq told Al-Monitor, “Under the current security, social, political and particularly the economic circumstances, this increase in population may cause a catastrophe in the short and long terms in Iraq.”

Sadeq, who has been observing social variables in Iraq, explained that “in light of the obstructed national economy, lack of development plans, lack of a solid national strategy to alleviate poverty and the great disparity between social segments, any increase in the population will further burden and pressure the available resources.”

He said, “The increase in population will increase the state's burden in terms of the provision of services, such as security, health, education, transport and other basic services, which consist of consumption expenditures that drain state resources. This is added to the subsequent higher unemployment rate.”

The problems need to be addressed soon, Sadeq said. “Any increase in the population in any society lacking a plan and vision by the state institutions could quickly reflect on the future of this society."

In such cases, population growth remains steady without any restraints, Sadeq said. “Crime rates will possibly increase, as well as family and delinquency problems and drug addiction. This may result in a wider gap between social classes, as well as social and psychological problems, such as inferiority complexes, frustration and social exclusion.”

With roughly 1 million people being added to Iraq's population each year, the outlook is grim. With no plans in place to stop overpopulation, with a lack of development plans and private business growth, and in light of government austerity measures and reliance on oil sales instead of diversified sources of income, poverty, crimes and psychological problems may discomfit the young Iraqi society.

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