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South Sudan’s demography – Looking to 2050

Sudán del Sur
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By Augustino T. Mayai


The population dynamics presented in this paper have serious implications for South Sudan’s human development and political stability. Using census data and UN estimates, this briefing paper highlights South Sudan’s recent demographic patterns and trends, starting in 2008 into 2050. The projections presented are based on an exponential growth regime, and the analysis seeks to provide key insights for the aid community to stimulate their thinking on the nature and level of support likely to be needed in the country over the next 30 years. The analysis explores the implications of demographic changes on South Sudan’s economy, social welfare, and human security. Finally, the brief provides both donors and domestic practitioners with actionable recommendations for present and future programming or planning.

At independence in 2011, South Sudan had 8.26 million people (NBS 2009), with the vast majority being people under the age of 30 years. According to the Sudanese censuses conducted before the outbreak of the second civil war and South Sudan’s subsequent independence, the southern population was 2.76 million in 1956, 2.8 million in 1973, and 5.27 million people in 1983. These numbers indicate an exponentially growing population in the region, despite experiencing the conflicts over the same periods.

Based on a projected growth rate of 3%, South Sudan’s population in 2013 should have been 9.3 million people and increased to 11.3 million people in 2018. The 2013 conflict disrupted this growth trajectory, displacing at least 2.3 million people outside of the country as refugees and slowing South Sudan’s growth by over 2%. If the current Revitalised Agreement for the Resolution of the Conflict in South Sudan (R-ARCSS) holds, these refugees are likely to return home by 2035, based on the returns trend observed during the CPA period. Should this happen South Sudan’s population would regain its 3% of annual growth, and the country’s population could increase to 12.6 million people by 2030, 16.77 million by 2040, and 22.6 million by 2050. Thus, a large proportion of the projected growth during the 2020–2050 period will likely come from return migration (see the next Section).

It is expected that the natural rate of population growth will have a modest bearing on South Sudan’s growth rate until around 2040, when return migration slows, childhood survival improves, and fertility rates remain high. Whilst youth, aged 15–35, will continue to represent a majority, the aging population will also grow gradually in response to gains in living standards and life expectancy. The growing populations of youth and the elderly will have an impact on governance and human development, the labour market, demand for health and education services, and expectations for decent retirement packages. A focus on policies and programmes that address youth needs and priorities over the next thirty years is paramount, to reduce poverty and address conflict drivers in the country, particularly in the rural areas.