Population information for Sudan has been limited, but in 1990 it was clear that the country was experiencing a high birth rate and a high, but declining, death rate. Infant mortality was high, but Sudan was expected to continue its rapid population growth, with a large percentage of its people under fifteen years of age, for some time to come. The trends indicated an overall low population density. However, with famine affecting much of the country, internal migration by hundreds of thousands of people was on the increase. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reported that in early 1991, approximately 1,800,000 people were displaced in the northern states, of whom it was estimated that 750,000 were in Al Khartum State, 30,000 each in Kurdufan and Al Awsat states, 300,000 each in Darfur and Ash Sharqi states, and 150,000 in Ash Shamali State. Efforts were underway to provide permanent sites for about 800,000 of these displaced people. The civil war and famine in the south was estimated to have displaced up to 3.5 million southern Sudanese by early 1990.
In addition to uncertainties concerning the number of refugees, population estimates were complicated by census difficulties. Since independence there have been three national censuses, in 1955-56, 1973, and 1983. The first was inadequately prepared and executed. The second was not officially recognized by the government, and thus its complete findings have never been released. The third census was of better quality, but some of the data has never been analyzed because of inadequate resources.
The 1983 census put the total population at 21.6 million with a growth rate between 1956 and 1983 of 2.8 percent per year. In 1990, the National Population Committee and the Department of Statistics put Sudan's birthrate at 50 births per 1,000 and the death rate at 19 per 1,000, for a rate of increase of 31 per 1,000 or 3.1 percent per year. This is a staggering increase; compared with the world average of 1.8 percent per year and the average for developing countries of 2.1 percent per annum, this percentage made Sudan one of the world's fastest growing countries. The 1983 population estimate was thought to be too low, but even accepting it and the pre-1983 growth rate of 2.8 percent, Sudan's population in 1990 would have been well over 25 million. At the estimated 1990 growth rate of 3.1 percent, the population would double in twenty-two years. Even if the lower estimated rate were sustained, the population would reach 38.6 million in 2003 and 50.9 million by 2013.
Both within Sudan and among the international community, it was commonly thought that with an average population density of nine persons per square kilometer, population density was not a major problem. This assumption, however, failed to take into account that much of Sudan was uninhabitable and its people were unevenly distributed, with about 33 percent of the nation's population occupying 7 percent of the land and concentrated around Khartoum and in Al Awsat. In fact, 66 percent of the population lived within 300 kilometers of Khartoum. In 1990 the population of the Three Towns (Khartoum, Omdurman, and Khartoum North) was unknown because of the constant influx of refugees, but estimates of 3 million, well over half the urban dwellers in Sudan, may not have been unrealistic. Nevertheless, only 20 percent of Sudanese lived in towns and cities; 80 percent still lived in rural areas.
The birthrate between the 1973 census and the 1987 National Population Conference appeared to have remained constant at from 48 to 50 births per 1,000 population. The fertility rate (the average number of children per woman) was estimated at 6.9 in 1983. Knowledge of family planning remained minimal. During the period, the annual death rate fell from 23 to 19 per 1,000, and the estimated life expectancy rose from 43.5 years to 47 years.
For more than a decade the gross domestic product ( GDP) of Sudan had not kept pace with the increasing population, a trend indicating that Sudan would have difficulty in providing adequate services for its people. Moreover, half the population were under eighteen years of age and therefore were primarily consumers not producers. Internal migration caused by civil war and famine created major shifts in population distribution, producing overpopulation in areas that could provide neither services nor employment. Furthermore, Sudan has suffered a continuous "brain drain" as its finest professionals and most skilled laborers emigrated, while simultaneously there has been an influx of more than 1 million refugees, who not only lacked skills but required massive relief. Droughts in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s have undermined Sudan's food production, and the country would have to double its production to feed its expected population within the next generation. In the absence of a national population policy to deal with these problems, they were expected to worsen.
Moreover, throughout Sudan continuous environmental degradation accompanied the dearth of rainfall. Experts estimated that desertification caused by deforestation and drought had allowed the Sahara to advance southward at the rate of ten kilometers per year. About 7.8 million Sudanese were estimated to be at risk from famine in early 1991, according to the United Nations World Food Program and other agencies. The Save the Children Fund estimated that the famine in Darfur would cost the lives of "tens of thousands" of people in the early 1990s. Analysts believed that the lack of rainfall combined with the ravages of war would result in massive numbers of deaths from starvation in the 1990s.
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