Ethiopia Table of Contents

Ethiopia's population was estimated at 51.7 million in 1990. According to the nation's only census, conducted in 1984, Ethiopia's population was about 42 million. But the census was far from comprehensive. The rural areas of Eritrea and Tigray were excluded because of hostilities. In addition, the population in the southern parts of Bale and Harerge could only be estimated because of the prevalence of pastoral nomadism.

The 1984 census revealed that Ethiopia's population was about 89 percent rural, and this percentage did not appear to have changed by the late 1980s. This segment included many nomadic and seminomadic peoples. The Ethiopian population always has been predominantly rural, engaging in sedentary agricultural activities such as the cultivation of crops and livestock-raising in the highlands. In the lowlands, the main activities traditionally have been subsistence farming by seminomadic groups and seasonal grazing of livestock by nomadic people.

The distribution of Ethiopia's population generally is related to altitude, climate, and soil. These physical factors explain the concentration of population in the highlands, which are endowed with moderate temperatures, rich soil, and adequate rainfall. About 14 percent of the population lives in areas above 2,400 meters (cool climatic zone), about 75 percent between 1,500 and 2,400 meters (temperate zone), and only 11 percent below 1,500 meters (hot climatic zone), although the hot zone encompasses more than half of Ethiopia's territory. Localities with elevations above 3,000 meters and below 1,500 meters are sparsely populated, the first because of cold temperatures and rugged terrain, which limit agricultural activity, and the second because of high temperatures and low rainfall, except in the west and southwest.

Although census data indicated that overall density was about thirty-seven people per square kilometer, density varied from over 100 per square kilometer for Shewa and seventy-five for Arsi to fewer than ten in the Ogaden, Bale, the Great Rift Valley, and the western lowlands adjoining Sudan. There was also great variation among the populations of the various administrative regions.

In 1990 officials estimated the birth rate at forty-five births per 1,000 population and the total fertility rate (the average number of children that would be born to a woman during her lifetime) at about seven per 1,000 population. Census findings indicated that the birth rate was higher in rural areas than in urban areas. Ethiopia's birth rate, high even among developing countries, is explained by early and universal marriage, kinship and religious beliefs that generally encourage large families, a resistance to contraceptive practices, and the absence of family planning services for most of the population. Many Ethiopians believe that families with many children have greater financial security and are better situated to provide for their elderly members.

In the absence of a national population policy or the provision of more than basic health services, analysts consider the high birth rate likely to continue. A significant consequence of the high birth rate is that the population is young; children under fifteen years of age made up nearly 50 percent of the population in 1989. Thus, a large segment of the population was dependent and likely to require heavy expenditures on education, health, and social services.

In 1990 the death rate was estimated at fifteen per 1,000 population (down from 18.1 per 1,000 in 1984). This also was a very high rate but typical of poor developing countries. The high death rate was a reflection of the low standard of living, poor health conditions, inadequate health facilities, and high rates of infant mortality (116 per 1,000 live births in 1990; 139 per 1,000 in 1984) and child mortality. Additional factors contributing to the high death rate include infectious diseases, poor sanitation, malnutrition, and food shortages. Children are even more vulnerable to such deprivations. In Ethiopia half of the total deaths involve children under five years of age. In addition, drought and famine in the 1980s, during which more than 7 million people needed food aid, interrupted the normal evolution of mortality and fertility and undoubtedly left many infants and children with stunted physical and mental capabilities. Life expectancy in 1990 was estimated at forty-nine years for males and fifty-two years for females.

Generally, birth rates, infant mortality rates, and overall mortality rates were lower in urban areas than in rural areas. As of 1990, urban residents had a life expectancy of just under fifty-three years, while rural residents had a life expectancy of forty-eight years. The more favorable statistics for urban areas can be explained by the wider availability of health facilities, greater knowledge of sanitation, easier access to clean water and food, and a slightly higher standard of living.

There has been a steady increase in the population growth rate since 1960. Based on 1984 census data, population growth was estimated at about 2.3 percent for the 1960-70 period, 2.5 percent for the 1970-80 period, and 2.8 percent for the 1980-85 period. Population projections compiled in 1988 by the Central Statistical Authority (CSA) projected a 2.83 percent growth rate for 1985-90 and a 2.96 percent growth rate for 1990-95. This would result in a population of 57.9 million by 1995. Estimated annual growth for 1995-2000 varied from 3.03 percent to 3.16 percent. Population estimates ranged from 67.4 million to 67.8 million by the year 2000. The CSA projected that Ethiopia's population could range from 104 million to 115 million by the year 2015. The International Development Association (IDA) provided a more optimistic estimate. Based on the assumption of a gradual fertility decline, such as might be caused by steady economic development without high priority given to population and family planning programs, the population growth rate might fall to about 2.8 percent per annum in 1995-2000 and to 2.1 percent in 2010-15, resulting in a population of 93 million in 2015.

Analysts believed that reducing the population growth rate was a pressing need, but one that could only be addressed through a persistent and comprehensive nationwide effort over the long term. As of early 1991, the Ethiopian regime had shown no commitment to such a program.

Variations in population growth existed among administrative regions. Kefa, Sidamo, and Shewa had the highest average growth rates for the 1967-84 period, ranging from 4.2 percent for Kefa to 3.5 percent for Sidamo and Shewa. Whereas Shewa's population growth was the result of Addis Ababa's status as the administrative, commercial, and industrial center of Ethiopia, Kefa and Sidamo grew primarily because of agricultural and urban development. The population in administrative regions such as Harerge, Welo, and Tigray, which had been hard hit by famine and insurrection, grew at slow rates: 1.3 percent, 1 percent, and 0.2 percent, respectively. Generally, the population of most central and western administrative regions grew more rapidly than did the population of the eastern and northern administrative regions.

Resettlement and Villagization
Refugees, Drought, and Famine

For more recent population estimates, see Facts about Ethiopia.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress