Many countries face a dead-end in terms of resources, natural or otherwise, due to an unprecedented population growth rate. In recent decades, Pakistan seems to be getting closer to this end. In 1947 when Pakistan was born, its population was recorded at 32 million. Today, 66 years later, the country’s population has risen to approximately 180 million, giving it a ranking as the 6th most populated country in the world. As evidenced by countries across South Asia, overpopulation is pushing cities to their limits: it is a consequence of rapid, unplanned urbanization and is also closely associated with poverty.
Pakistan witnessed an increase in its poverty rate from 22.3% to 40% in 2010-2011 . At least 62 million people live below the poverty line, 45 million people face severe food insecurity and 30% cannot afford healthcare. Urban areas account for one-third of the population, of which 20% comes under the categorization of ‘urban poor.’ The cities of Karachi and Lahore record the highest levels of urban poverty in the country. The reasons for the increase in the urban population are two-fold: rural-to-urban migration and a high national fertility rate — both which have contributed to an economic downturn, as well as severe strain on available resources.
Reasons for the Explosion
Since its independence in 1947, Pakistan has seen a growing number of rural people moving to urban areas to escape poverty and unemployment in their home villages. Rural migration is also a consequence of displacement due to natural disaster (e.g. earthquakes, floods). The country has also received large numbers of cross-border migrants and refugees from neighboring nations like Afghanistan. The high influx of people moving into cities from rural areas has been one of the largest contributors to Pakistan’s urban population rise. The result of this population boom is economic imbalance and greater strain on resources such as water, housing, health, food, education and employment.
The other reason for Pakistan’s exploding population rate is the country’s high fertility rates. Currently, Pakistan has the highest population growth rate in the world at around 2.03% and a birth rate of 24.3 per 1,000 people. If the rate remains the same, then the current population is likely to double in the next few years, whereas land space and other natural resources will remain the same. There is a projected population growth of 191 million by 2015, and if the same rates continue, Pakistan could be the 4th most populated country in the world by 2030.
With a high fertility rate of approximately 3.07 children born to each woman, it is no surprise that Pakistan has one of the world’s lowest contraception rates at 27%. The fertility rate in both rural areas and urban slums is more than five children per woman . If these growth rates continue and more rural-dwellers continue to move into cities, the country’s shift to an urban majority could come even sooner than expected and place devastating stress on already stretched-thin resources.
Pakistan has already begun to pay the price of an exploding population. Access to basic needs like food, water and housing is becoming increasingly difficult for the urban poor. For example, as in other South Asian cities, there is a lack of affordable housing available for Pakistan’s urban poor, leading to the growth of large slums in its major cities. Pakistan’s cities are poorly planned with more than 40% of urban residents moving to informal settlements or slum communities.
In terms of natural resources like water, where supply has fallen from 5,000 cubic meters per capita in the 1950s to 1,500 cubic meters today, Pakistan could become water scarce by the year 2035. Being an agriculture-dependent economy, presently 90% of dwindling water supplies are dedicated to irrigation and other agricultural resources, leaving only 10% for drinking water and sanitation. Around 40–55 million people in the country do not have access to drinking water, and this number will grow as the population grows.
In urban Pakistan, water is heavily contaminated with lead, chromium, cyanide, other chemicals and human waste from surrounding industries, which has led to the spread of waterborne illnesses like diarrhea and malaria. This is prevalent across the country where 630 children die every day because of these diseases. In urban areas, having access to clean, potable water is a true challenge. For example in Lahore, households get water either from public supply agencies or privately installed groundwater pumps — the latter being the more expensive source. The poor heavily depend on the public water supply system, which is intermittent and of questionable quality. Therefore, even if the poor have access to water facilities, chances of them availing and benefitting from it are minimal.
Education has also suffered in the overarching debate on poverty and the population. According to UNESCO in 2009-2010, approximately seven million Pakistani children were out of primary school: 60%, or 4.2 million, were girls. Thirty percent of Pakistanis are in a state of “extreme educational poverty” and receive less than two years of education. In urban areas, there is a disproportionate number of schools versus the number of children to be educated, with the latter being higher. This disproportion is likely to increase as the population grows and the education challenge is not made priority. With limited resources left for educational infrastructure, chances are that it may become a privilege more than a right, especially where the urban poor are concerned. While there are schools in slums, the quality of education and facilities are inadequate. Private schools are unaffordable and the question of survival kicks in, making formal education a low priority for the slum-dwellers.
The central government is spending less than 2% of its GDP towards developing and supporting its educational systems, leaving a huge gap in meeting the necessary requirements to develop the sector. The literacy levels in slums are minimal, and education is given very little priority. Due to poverty and inflation, children and male teens in slums are expected to work instead of attend school; they must help support their families by taking odd jobs with low wages that are less than the declared monthly minimum wage of INR8,000 (~US$145.50). Girls, on the other hand, are largely restricted in accessing formal education.
Without a proper education, the prospects for earning a more stable livelihood decrease. Pakistan’s GDP growth rate has not exceeded 3.7% in the last five years, and a minimum growth rate of 8% is required to meet the employment needs of its growing population. The rising unemployment rate of the country’s urban poor youth is a great concern. Official figures state that 5.6% of the population is unemployed. The Wilson Centres 2011 study highlights that the “most widely discussed risk associated with Pakistan’s population profile is youth radicalization — the threat of millions of young, impoverished, and unemployed Pakistanis succumbing to the blandishments of extremism.” The other matter of concern is the growing rate of crime and drug abuse with an estimated 9.6 million drug addicts in the country, arising from unemployment, lack of education and poverty.
For a Better Tomorrow
There is desperate need to control Pakistan’s population growth and alleviate urban poverty for the country to progress in coming years. Though the country faces serious challenges exacerbated by a politically unstable environment, there are long-term solutions based on knowledge and engagement that may mitigate its current crisis.
There is a clear need for deeper understanding of the link between rural and urban poverty. Rural poverty and the economic downturn in Pakistan has triggered a significant lack of infrastructural, financial and educational services. The rural poor have moved from their home villages to the city seeking better livelihood opportunities. Cities give the hope of a better ‘everything’ – jobs, infrastructure, education, increased social capital and quality of life. However, urban areas have rarely been able to fulfil all these needs, leading to further depletion of natural and human resources.
The link between rural and urban Pakistan goes beyond financial poverty; resource poverty is increasingly becoming an issue. Resources like water need to be better managed. Agricultural water shortages mean higher food costs, thereby leading to further migration that adds greater strain on urban water resources, incomes and livelihoods. Same is the case with other basic needs like housing, education and employment. Urban poverty in Pakistan cannot be tackled in a vacuum: rural needs should be considered to slow down poverty growth in cities. The reasons for why the rural poor are willing to uproot their lives and move to a city must be examined to better understand how to slow down urban population growth. Greater attention should be paid to developing programs that lessen city in-migration.
Another long-term solution for Pakistan may lie in stronger involvement of the private sector in the urban poverty alleviation framework. The private sector can play a key role in easing Pakistan’s urban population crisis. In the field of infrastructure, water and education, the private sector can work with local partners, the community and the government to develop and repair existing resources. Private investment can serve to grow the economy along with furthering employment opportunities.
Lastly, to directly address population growth, Pakistan’s high fertility rate must be grappled with. The country’s population is growing at an alarming rate and measures need to be taken to spread awareness about contraception methods and family planning. Currently, there is rising demand for contraception that is unmet. Many couples seek to use contraception, but are ignorant about its efficacy or how to access it. According to the Wilson Centre report, every third pregnancy in Pakistan in unplanned, which is fueling the country’s population growth. Sex education, along with awareness of contraception techniques and family planning programs, are highly necessary to stop the unplanned, rapid population growth that Pakistan is facing. Also, given the cultural backdrop, men – not just women – need to receive adequate education on these topics.
Curbing population growth has been on the agenda of the Government of Pakistan’s Five-Year Plans since 1948, with family planning and contraception usage as a part of it since the 1960s. However, the government has not shown any significant results in reducing the fertility rate. This is mainly due to poor quality services, lack of access to family planning facilities and inadequate coverage of the population in urban and rural areas, as well as the attitudes of decision-makers on contraception usage.
Pakistan’s neighbors, like Bangladesh, do demonstrate how effective family planning efforts can help slow population growth. After its split from Pakistan in 1971, Bangladesh adopted the same family planning program as Pakistan, but population control has been a high priority for its government. The Ministry of Health and Family Planning was put in charge of the national family planning program and adopted a multisectoral approach that allocated responsibility to eight different ministries. NGOs played an important role in awareness-raising and marketing exercises by distributing condoms and oral birth control. Further, the program was heavily funded by international donors. Essentially, the government worked with NGOs and the private sector to consistently promote contraception. Under a similar cultural context, Bangladesh has managed to considerably reduce its fertility rate from 6.3 in 1975 to 2.3 today.
To date, Pakistan’s family planning program has not included other stakeholders to the same extent as its Bangladeshi counterpart. In long-term efforts, the involvement of different stakeholders, availability of contraception and family planning services should be a joint goal of Pakistan’s government and private sector.
Amidst economic turmoil and political unrest, overpopulation has a direct cause-and-effect relationship with Pakistan’s poverty, pushing more people below the line, especially in its cities. Along with the immense strain on resources, this population is forced to accept lower standards of living to survive, thereby illustrating a widening gap between the rich and the poor. The unchecked population explosion can be a major factor behind the rise in general social disappointment, depression and tension.
The rapidly growing population of Pakistan is also very young with an average age of 21. Given that more than one-third of Pakistanis are now 14 years old or younger, the coming decades will see a youthful majority in the country’s population, much like its country neighbor India. The current situation in Pakistan calls for non-negotiable steps towards providing quality education for all along with stronger implementation of family planning techniques. If Pakistan is to reap a ‘demographic dividend,’ the exploding birth rates have to fall considerably with provision of stronger access opportunities to resources. The future of Pakistan lies in how well the population crisis is solved in the present, otherwise its challenges will mount from being human-abundant and resource-scarce.