ISLAMABAD (DAWN/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) – Pakistan’s booming population is at odds with its natural endowment. Environmental stress, caused by an imbalance between rapid population growth and limited natural resources, is one of the most frightening but least discussed realities we face.
Our already faltering economy—one that can barely create the three million additional jobs it needs each year to accommodate new entrants—faces the added threat of water and land scarcity. It’s a perfect storm waiting for us – or have the clouds already broken?
Temperature increases associated with climate change and decreases in rainfall attract public attention and tend to overshadow the underlying and growing threat of erosion of the projected size of the natural resource base that constitutes Pakistan’s National Conservation Strategy approved in 1992. Although coping with a rapidly growing population was part of the strategy, policymakers did not anticipate that population growth rates would remain at their high levels and that we would add another 120 million people to the population between 1981 and 2017. We are expected to add at least another 120 million by 2050.
The first alarm bell is the shrinking water base. A direct manifestation of the imbalance between nature and people is the sharp drop in water availability per capita from 2,150 cubic meters or CM to 860 CM between 1980 and 2017. A few simple calculations confirm that this trend will continue: the overall availability of water resources in Pakistan will currently estimated at 178 billion cubic meters (BCM). At the current growth rate, our population will increase to 242 million by 2025 and 290 million by 2035. Unless we improve our ability to store and conserve water, per capita water availability will fall to further scarcity levels of 730 CM in 2025 and 600 CM in 2035.
The second glaring imbalance is the shrinking land base for agriculture and the increasing need for food production. Rural areas are hardest hit by water scarcity, and per capita acreage has fallen from 0.5 hectares in 1980 to 0.2 in 2017. Another noticeable trend is that 62 percent of those employed in agriculture owned land in 2005. The corresponding share had fallen to 49 percent in 2020. These changes alone are having a direct impact on livelihoods, as evidenced by the shrinking size of agriculture as a source of income.
Across Pakistan, climatic and population pressures will eventually lead to food shortages. Rural-to-urban migration is a direct result of rural stress caused by dwindling natural resources, shrinking economic opportunities and a surge in the number of job seekers. Migration, caused by diminishing agricultural opportunities and the attractiveness of selling rural land in response to population pressures, is an adaptation strategy.
However, carefully considered policies are needed to reduce the burden on cities and towns that were not initially planned to accommodate this population growth. Improved delivery of public services in smaller cities is imperative to reduce migratory stress in large urban centres.
The urban population is growing faster than the rural one, increasing environmental problems and creating bottlenecks in urban areas. Rapid urban growth was the result of high urban fertility rates and rapid rural-to-urban migration until the late 1980s, when urban fertility rates finally began to decline. As a result, urban growth rates peaked at nearly 5 percent per year in 1951-1972, compared with rural rates of 3.5 percent. Urban growth rates have been declining since 1981 but still outpace rural areas by more than 1 to 2 percent due to internal migration. The urban population has already grown from 24 million to 76 million between 1980 and 2017 and will overtake the rural population by 2045.
Population growth is leading to massive overcrowding, high population densities and a shortage of arable land due to the pressure of additional demand for housing. The number of housing units in urban areas increased from 3.6 million to 12 million units between 1980 and 2017. The quadrupling of housing demand is leading to a sharp increase in real estate costs and the conversion of rural and built-up areas into housing projects.
Looking ahead to 2050, we expect that 100 million more Pakistanis will live in urban areas, even if urban family size declines moderately. But high population densities and pressures on cities’ already congested municipal boundaries will continue to overwhelm limited facilities, particularly domestic water and sanitation.
Across Pakistan, climate and population pressures will eventually lead to food shortages due to negative impacts on our ecology and biodiversity, and potentially on our livelihoods, thereby exacerbating inequalities.
Already better-off regions like the irrigated plains of Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa will build resilience to climate variability, while poorer desert and rainy regions of rural Sindh and Balochistan will succumb to the pressure. Increasing inequalities can lead to enormous regional frictions due to increasing competition for largely limited resources and livelihoods. The prospect of escalating water disputes is inevitable.