Like many developing countries, Mauritania was unable to compile accurate demographic statistics during its first decades of independence. The official census of December 1976 enumerated over 1.4 million people, including a nomadic population of about 513,000. Based on these figures, the 1987 population was estimated at 1.8 million, of which about 50.25 percent were females and 49.75 percent were males. The government estimated annual population growth at 1.6 percent during the 1970s, but United Nations (UN) estimates placed growth at 2.9 percent between 1975 and 1985. The 2.9 percent rate projected Mauritania's population size in the year 2000 to be nearly 2.5 million people. This rate of growth, although lower than that of many other African countries, was expected to rise during the 1990s.
The crude birth rate for the years 1980 through 1985 was 50.1 per 1,000 population according to UN estimates, an increase over the 45.1 per 1,000 ratio observed in 1965. The crude death rate declined from 28 per 1,000 population in 1965 to 20.9 per 1,000 population in 1980. Infant mortality was estimated at 137 deaths per 1,000 births. Life expectancy was 42.4 years for men and 45.6 years for women. Infant mortality was higher and life expectancy lower than the average for Third World countries in the mid1980s . Like many developing countries, Mauritania's population was young: in 1985 an estimated 72 percent was under thirty years of age, and 46.4 percent was under fifteen years of age.
Based on UN estimates, average population density in 1987 was 1.8 people per square kilometer--by far the lowest level in West Africa. The population also was unevenly distributed. The 1976 census showed that 85 percent of all Mauritanians lived south of 18° north latitude--a line running roughly east from Nouakchott. Migration toward the south continued throughout the 1980s. Population density varied from 0.1 per square kilometer in the Saharan Zone to more than 35 per square kilometer in densely settled parts of the Senegal River Valley.
Mauritania's population underwent dramatic changes as a consequence of drought and migration during the 1960s and 1970s. In the 1960s, pastoral nomads (mostly Maures) and sedentary agriculturists (mostly blacks) constituted more than 90 percent of the population. At that time, urbanization was at a very low level. By the mid-1980s, however, observers estimated that less than 25 percent of the population was still nomadic or seminomadic, whereas the urban population was about 30 percent and the remainder, sedentary farmers or small town dwellers. Many other factors also contributed to this shift in settlement patterns and livelihood, including long-term efforts by colonial and independent governments to settle the nomads and new employment opportunities associated with mining and export industries.
These trends, accelerated in the 1980s, fostered rates of urbanization that the World Bank placed among the highest in Africa. In 1984 observers estimated that at least 30 percent of the population (more than 500,000 people) were urban dwellers, not counting temporary residents displaced by drought. In mid-1985 the World Bank raised this estimate to 40 percent, following a further two-year period of extreme drought. Counting both resident and temporary urban dwellers, some sources in the late 1980s placed Mauritania's urban population at or above 80 percent.
In the mid-1980s, Nouakchott was home to an estimated 400,000 to 500,000 inhabitants. Nouadhibou's population numbered 50,000 to 70,000; Zouîrât's, about 50,000. Other cities, such as Atar, Kaédi, Rosso, and Néma, had doubled or tripled in size between 1970 and 1985.
More than any other locale, Nouakchott illustrated the problems brought about by rapid and uncontrolled urbanization. Originally a small administrative center, it had about 30,000 inhabitants in 1959 and more than 40,000 by 1970. During the 1970s, the city grew at a rate of 15 to 20 percent a year; rapid expansion persisted into the mid-1980s. Only about one-tenth of the city's population had access to adequate housing and services. Water and housing shortages were especially severe. Many of the recent arrivals lived in the kébés (shantytowns) that sprang up around the capital. In 1983 a French researcher calculated that 40 percent or more of Nouakchott's population lived in kébés; by 1987 that percentage had increased.
The Mauritanian government sought international assistance to cope with the population problem. It also attempted to reverse the influx of people to the cities by offering land, seeds, and transport to families willing to return to the countryside and resume farming. A relocation incentive program was launched in 1985, but because of persistent drought its prospects were difficult to gauge.
Despite massive unemployment, a substantial number of foreigners--as much as 15 percent of the modern sector work force--were needed to meet the demand for skilled labor. At the same time, at least 600,000 Mauritanians sought work outside their homeland, mainly in West Africa, the Middle East, and Western Europe. Mauritanian traders, for example, were involved in petty commerce in Senegal and Côte d'Ivoire and sometimes traded as far away as Central Africa. Maures sometimes sought employment in the Arab petroleum-producing states, whereas black Mauritanians most often sought work in France. Each year from January to July, when there was little need for cultivators and harvesters in Mauritania, large numbers of workers (mostly blacks) sought jobs in Senegal and Mali.
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