Rethinking Urbanization in Pakistan
The Population Bomb and Food Security
Muhammad Atif Sheikh
Beware! Our cities are fast eating up our agricultural lands and the threat of being food insecure looms large in the urban population of our country. This was what Mr Rana Riaz Mehmood, Assistant Horticulture Officer, Lahore, stunned me with. This forewarning made me think as to how senseless we have been by putting this otherwise burning issue on the backburner. Our media, as well as the policymakers, seem completely oblivious to a potentially terrible crisis that is knocking at our doors. Perhaps the seeds of this danger were sown at the time of partition when a vast majority of migrants preferred to settle in big cities. Take, for example, the instance of Karachi where the population rose by 176% between 1941 and 1951. In the same period, the population of Faisalabad swelled by 156% while that of Hyderabad by 80%. Settling of more migrants in the following years also spurred an unbridled growth in the urban population of the country. Moreover, the gaping difference in the provision of basic civic amenities between urban and rural areas also made people move to cities. Resultantly, we are on the way to becoming an urban-majority nation and a glimpse into it can be had in the analysis of the results of fifth and sixth housing and population censuses. As per the 1998 census, 32.5% of the country’s population was settled in urban areas but this ratio increased to 36.4% in 2017. During this period, the country’s population grew by 57% but that increase in urban population was a whopping 75.6%. “World Urbanization Prospects: The 2018 Revision,” published by the Population Division of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs of the United Nations, further corroborates this fact as it reports that Pakistan, which was the 12th largest country, in 1998, in terms of population living in urban areas, is not the 10th largest.
Although this menace has affected almost every city of Pakistan, as much as 53% of total population growth between 1998 and 2017 has been recorded in 10 biggest cities of the country Karachi, Lahore, Faisalabad, Rawalpindi, Gujranwala, Peshawar, Multan Hyderabad, Islamabad and Quetta. The population of Lahore witnessed a hefty growth of 104%, followed by Peshawar (100%), Islamabad (92%), Gujranwala (79%), Quetta (77%), Karachi (60%), Faisalabad (55.57%), Multan (56%), Rawalpindi (49%) and Hyderabad (48.5%). In 1998, Karachi hosted 7.1% of country’s total population and the ratio has slightly risen to 7.2% in 2017 while that ratio in Lahore rose from 4.1% to 5.4% during the same period, while in Faisalabad, this growth remained stagnant at 1.5%.
Likewise, in 2017, 19.7% of the country’s total urban population was living in Karachi as against 21.7% in 1998. Lahore, on the other hand, has seen a growth from 12.6% to 14.7% while that in Faisalabad has declined from 4.7% to 4.2%. A fair idea of the pace at which our cities are expanding can be had from the figures of the United Nations according to which Karachi was at 20th place in 1998 on the list of cities having a population of 0.3 million or more but it is at 12th place in 2019. Similarly, Lahore now is at 25th position as against 42nd in 1998 while Faisalabad has moved up from 156th to 135th.
Rapidly rising in urban population is causing an unbridled growth and sprawl of major cities due to which agricultural lands on their outskirts are being eaten up. A glimpse into the state of affairs is given by an international publication titled “The Atlas of Urban Extension 2016” according to which Karachi, which covered an area of 22335.21 hectares in 1991 expanded to 34126.74 hectares in October 2000 while in Oct 2013 it spanned 45326.52 hectares, meaning thereby that in the first 10 years of this 23-year period, Karachi expanded by 52.8% and in the next 13 years, it sprawled by an additional 32.8% – overall 103% expansion between 1991 and 2013. Similarly, the urban extent of Lahore which was 17750.52 hectares in February 1991 sprawled to 37142.01 hectares in October 2013 – 110% increase in the abovementioned period. Likewise, another important Pakistani city Sialkot covered an area of 2038.05 in November 19952 but the coverage rose to 8168.58 in October 2000 and in October it expanded to 9620.28 hectares. Surprisingly, this city grew by 301% between 1991 and 2000 whereas by 372% between 2000 and 2014.
These figures point to the fact that during the first decade and a half of the present century, the city of Lahore gained the maximum expansion. The same fact is corroborated by the report by Punjab Government’s Urban Unit titled “Punjab Cities Growth Atlas” which says that 50 cities of Punjab that spanned 893 sq km in 1995 had grown by 606 sq km till 2005 making their average area 1499 sq km. In the next ten years, their areas increased by another 1089 sq km and in 2015 their average expansion was estimated to be 2588 sq km which accounts for 1.26% of Punjab’s total area. In these 20 years, Punjab’s 50 cities expanded by 1695 sq km – 190% in total. As much as 68% of this expansion happened in the first ten years and 73% in the next. Nearly 76% of this expansion – 1284 sq km – was seen in only 10 cities while the remaining 40 cities witnessed 411 sq km expansion. If the same trend continues, it is highly likely that the area of these 50 cities would be 4626 sq km by 2025 and 11736 sq km by 2040.
This sprawl of urban precincts evinces that the suburbs of the cities, especially those of the big ones, in the form of formal and informal settlements have seen enormous expansion. All this happened due to changing patterns of land use, especially of agricultural land, owing to which agricultural tracts of land are falling prey to urbanization. Take, for example, Lahore; according to National Report of Pakistan for Habitat III of the federal ministry of Climate Change, during the past 40 years, 114630 hectares of cultivable area of this provincial metropolis has been converted to civic use and housing schemes were established on nearly 18% of this land. Likewise, Land Use Statistics of Punjab suggest that cropped area of Lahore on which crops and fruits were cultivated reduced from 183000 hectares in 2008-09 to 163000 hectares in 2015-16 – 10.9 decrease in only six years. The prime reason behind this decline is the change in land-use patterns spurred by the need for residential spaces. In this way, our sprawling cities are eating up the fertile land.
This is happening due to two main factors: first is the urban population growth, both natural and migratory, but rural to urban migration contributes more. This is principally due to climate change which is causing depletion of water resources in most parts of the country. Moreover, changing weather patterns and intensity of longevity of seasons is also changing which is adversely impacting agricultural produce. The difference between expenses and incomes is also expanding day by day. The growing gap in the provision of civic amenities, employment and other such factors in rural and urban areas is compelling people to abandon agriculture as a profession and move to urban areas.
The state of affairs is being amply explained by the figures quoted in the Economic Survey of Pakistan according to which the biggest decline in the number of those abandoning the agriculture sector was recorded in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa where the percentage of people employed in this sector has declined from 50.50% in 1994-95 to 34.56 in 2014-15. But, the census reports reveal that the second biggest increase (92%) in urban population was recorded in this very province.
In terms of abandoning the profession of agriculture, Balochistan was at the second place where the ratio of those employed in this sector has fallen from 55.48 to 43.43. But the biggest increase in urban population was seen here – 117%.
Since the vast majority of the rural population is less educated and lacks skills in other fields, they are compelled to do jobs by which they hardly make both ends meet. Due to low incomes, these people prefer to settle in areas commonly known as Katchi Abadis. These informal settlements are established within or on the outskirts of big cities. This leaves deleterious impacts on our food security; it especially leaves two-fold impacts in the urban context. First, due to the abandonment of agriculture as a profession, the manpower falls far below that is required and it causes a decline in agricultural produce. Since cities depend on rural areas for their food, therefore, urban food security is jeopardized. Secondly, since the people who migrate from rural areas to urban cones have scant resources at their disposal, they occupy less secured lands or the ones located near big cities as they can have less expensive residences there. This, in fact, means that agricultural lands come under residential use. There are a number of such settlements across the Ravi River the lands of which were previously cultivated. In this way, the food which was available from the suburbs of cities becomes limited.
When people migrate to cities – already overpopulated in most cases – the demand for land increases which effects change in land-use patterns, causing thereby its use for building new colonies, schemes and even industry. In this way, cities sprawl and agricultural lands diminish. Besides this, another trend that is effecting a change in land-use patterns is the movement of people from densely populated areas to those with relatively lower population density. This is called urban sprawl. Movement of people to farmhouses and housing societies established on agricultural lands on the fringes of cities are a clear manifestation of this.
So there is a pressing need to comprehend the significance of urban and peri-urban agriculture in the context of food security of the sprawling cities. First of all, it is to be understood that an almost 90% dependence of an urban consumer is on purchased food, which is either grown in rural areas or is imported into the country. So, year-round continuous availability of food is the basic tenet of urban food security. But, this availability is prone to many a factor; for instance, torrential floods of 2010 not only squeezed our agricultural produce but also impeded the transportation of food items all through the country. Of late, more than usual rains and snowfall have negatively affected our crops, especially that of wheat. So, we must take into consideration the facts narrated in Global Climate Risk Index 2019 according to which Pakistan is among those 10 countries which were most affected by natural calamities between 1998 and 2017. Let alone natural calamities, humans-induced disaster-like situations do also affect food security. For instance, at times, strike of transporters creates dearth of food items in cities. These human actions contribute to jacking up of prices of food items in cities. So, in the light of past experiences, we can say that natural disasters or human actions, e.g. lack of transport, can potentially create a food crisis in cities in future.
Another thing that needs to be taken into account is the time it takes to supply fresh produce to the end consumers. Usually, it takes 5-10 days due to which the nutritional value of the food item is reduced by 30-50%. Research also suggests that nearly 30% of fresh agricultural produce rots before reaching the end consumer owing to glitches in the supply system. In addition, urbanization on the peripheral lands has also damaged the systems of water extraction and recharge of water table. Due to growing population, the use of water in our cities has increased manifolds but water table is falling because it doesn’t get recharged. This state of affairs is not compatible with the definition of ‘food security’ as given by World Health Organization (WHO) according to which it is “[a] situation that exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life. Based on this definition, four food security dimensions can be identified: food availability, economic and physical access to food, food utilization and stability over time.
Urban and peri-urban agriculture (UPA) is not only a great source of income but also ensures the availability of fresh, nutritious and cheap food items. This provides for the famer’s own food security and that of the city as well because locally produced food means lesser cost on transportation, packaging and refrigeration. Moreover, no middleman is required to sell this produce which means that the consumers, especially those belonging to low-income groups, have easy access to cheap food items and that too in a wide variety. Moreover, it augments our domestic/urban consumption of food items against climatic and other temporary interruptions. It, thus, fulfils, in one way or another, the four aspects of food security.
Pakistan, which is already a food-insecure country, cannot afford to lose more agricultural land on the peripheries of its cities. So, it is important that we protect urban and peri-urban agricultural land and promote it on commercial grounds under a food and nutrition security strategy so that urban and peri-urban agriculture may counter the growing adversities of real estate development.