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Geography, climate and population
Latvia is one of the three Baltic states. It is bordered in the northeast by Estonia, in the east by the Russian Federation, in the southeast by Belarus, in the south by Lithuania and in the west and northwest by the Baltic Sea and the Gulf of Riga. Its total area is 64 490 km². The country became independent from the Soviet Union in May 1990. Administratively, Latvia is divided into 110 municipalities and 9 cities. The capital city is Riga.
Latvia consists of a continental part in the east and the Kurzeme peninsula (Kurland) in the west. The continental part consists of morainic uplands that are crossed by several rivers flowing to the lowlands, of which the main ones are the Daugava, Gauja and Salaca rivers. The highest point of the country is in the Vidzeme uplands with an altitude of 312 m above sea level. The continental part is separated from the peninsula in the west by the Lielupe river, which flows through the Zemgale plain. In the peninsula are the Kurzeme uplands, which are lower than the continental uplands and crossed by several rivers, of which the Venta river is the most important. The highest point in these uplands is at 184 m above sea level. About 57 percent of the country lies below 100 m above sea level and only 2.5 percent lies above 200 m.
The agricultural area, which is the sum of arable land, permanent crops and permanent meadows and pasture, is estimated at 1.9 million ha, which is 29 percent of the total area of the country. In 2013, the total physical cultivated area was estimated at 1.2 million ha, of which 99.5 percent (1 208 000 ha) consisted of temporary crops and 0.5 percent (6 000 ha) of permanent crops (Table 1).
The soils in Latvia are generally not very fertile. Around 230 000 ha are threatened by wind erosion and around 380 000 ha by water erosion. According to various estimates, marshes cover 5-10 percent of the total area of the country. Some swamps of peat ground reach a depth of 5 m. The fertile marshy black soils can be found only in the Zemgale plain.
The average annual air temperature in Latvia is 6°C, varying from -5ºC in January and February to 17°C in July. Average minimum and maximum temperature are -8ºC and 22°C respectively. The average annual precipitation in Latvia is 667 mm, ranging from 33 mm in February and March to 78 mm in July. Annual average relative humidity is 81 percent (LEGMC, 2016).
Four climatological regions can be distinguished in Latvia:
- The coastal region, covering 25 percent of the country, includes the Zemgale plain and the whole coastal region from Lithuania to Estonia. The average annual precipitation is 600 mm. The average temperature varies from -3°C in January to 16.5°C in July. Humidity is low.
- The Latgale region, covering 28 percent of the country, includes the southeast of the country. The average annual precipitation is 700 mm. The average temperature varies from -7°C in January to 17°C in July. Humidity is high.
- The Vidzeme region, covering 30 percent of the country, includes the northeastern inland part of the country. The average annual precipitation is 700-850 mm. The average temperature varies from -7°C in January to 16.5°C in July. Humidity is high.
- The Kurzeme region, covering 17 percent of the country, includes the inland part of the Kurzeme peninsula. The average annual precipitation is 700-850 mm. The average temperature varies from -4°C in January to 16.5°C in July. There is medium humidity.
Overall, during the 20th century the average air temperature in Latvia has risen by 1 degree due to climate change. From the beginning of the second half of the 20th century, fluctuations in annual rainfall have risen (LEGMC, 2016).
In 2015, the total population was about 2 million, of which around 31 percent was rural (Table 1). Average population density in the country is 31 inhabitants/km². The average annual population growth rate in the 2005-2015 period has been estimated at minus 1 percent.
In 2014, the Human Development Index (HDI) ranks Latvia 46 among 188 countries, while the Gender Inequality Index (GII) ranks it 36 among 155 countries, for which information was available. Life expectancy is 74 years and the under-five mortality is 8 per 1000 births, both progressing from 68 years and 24 per 1000 in the 1990s. With no significant distinction between boys and girls, around 96 percent of the children in 2013 are enrolled in primary education, but only 87 percent for secondary education (WB, 2015). Adult literacy is 99.9 percent in 2012 (UNDP, 2015). In 2015, 99 percent of the total population had access to improved water sources (100 and 98 percent in urban and rural areas respectively) and 88 percent of the total population had access to improved sanitation (91 and 82 percent in urban and rural areas respectively) (JMP, 2015).