Pakistan’s Looming Demographic Crisis

While the politicians fight each other in Islamabad for control of Pakistan, they make no mention in their fiery speeches of the real crisis likely to stunt prosperity for generations. According to economists and demographers, the explosion that endangers Pakistan is not political but demographic. The UN has projected that if fertility rates remain constant, Pakistan’s population will jump to 261 million by 2030 and nearly 380 million by 2050. Pakistan’s current population is around 200 million people while in 1947 Pakistan had only 33 million people. The country boasts the sixth-largest population in the world and carries the distinction of having one of the highest fertility and birth rates.

Pakistan’s rapidly increasing population will strain its natural resources (especially water), government services, infrastructure, and families, all of which are already overburdened. Considering that the current population of Pakistan is around 185 million, think about the state of affairs in the country. Crippling blackouts, dwindling water supplies, and natural gas shortages plague most parts of the country – both urban and rural. The future economic and political consequences of this high population growth are dire, especially since Pakistan has not experienced the type of economic growth or industrialization necessary to employ millions of young people.

It is also true that many of Pakistan’s resource problems stem from poor planning and blatant mismanagement. Exploiting new resources, repairing/maintaining existing infrastructure, and smart allocation plans can reduce many shortfalls. However, even if this could be achieved — the dismal track-record of previous governments strongly suggests otherwise — the exploding population will continue to strain the country’s finite resources at levels which are simply unsustainable.
This is yet another failure of Pakistani government to get its house in order and implement long-term developmental strategies. Like many South Asian states, Pakistan’s state institutions are relatively weak, a problem compounded by the fact that it inherited little of British India’s institutions. However, instead of emphasizing governance and building up the capacity of the state, successive Pakistani governments have neglected economic development, industrialization, education, and government itself. As a result, Pakistan is ill-prepared to implement the sort of economic reforms needed to employ its entire population or implement the family planning strategies necessary to curb population growth.

A comparison to Bangladesh is instructive. When both East Pakistan (today’s Bangladesh) and West Pakistan (today’s Pakistan) were one country between 1947 and 1971, East Pakistan had more people than the West Pakistan. However, today, successful family planning policies in Bangladesh have led to an almost stable but gradually growing population of around 150 million people. Bangladesh’s success surprised many observers but is now widely upheld as an exemplar. Many of Pakistan’s neighbours, including Iran, have also managed to lower their fertility rates.

The Indus Valley and the Punjab province are among the most fertile regions in the world. The world’s largest continuous irrigation system dominates the Indus Valley. As a result, Pakistan has generally had a greater ability to generate and absorb a larger population than many other countries with large fertility rates. However, Pakistan’s ability to sustain more people is reaching its limits.

Unfortunately, Pakistan’s attitudes towards India often obscure the problem in Pakistan. On one hand, there is some belief that Pakistan can only challenge India with a large population; therefore, it is not in Pakistan’s interest to limit population growth. On the other hand, many in Pakistan seem to believe that Pakistan is actually just growing at a normal rate but is being sabotaged by Indian dams upriver. However, it is obvious that Pakistan’s rivers are drying up because there are simply too many people, resulting in too much demand for water and agriculture.

In Pakistan, water availability dropped from 5,000 cubic metres per capita in the 1950s to current levels of under 1,500 cubic metres. Furthermore, the annual water demand is expected to exceed availability by 100 billion cubic metres by 2025, if not earlier. In a nutshell, Pakistan will likely be a water-scarce nation within a decade.

Closely tied to dwindling water supplies is the rapid loss of agricultural land. Pakistan loses thousands of acres of fertile land every year due to poor farming, irrigation, and drainage practices. This naturally places great strain on remaining land resources and threatens food security.

Today, Pakistan faces a host of serious problems ranging from terrorism to economic collapse. Given the tumultuous history of the country and the seemingly endless string of crises, it is easy to understand why most Pakistanis remain focussed on the present and overlook long-term challenges facing the country. Yet, if drastic measures are not taken to address the population boom and resource depletion, the future looks very bleak indeed.

Pakistani politicians need to stop playing their game of thrones if they want to save their country. Ultimately, implementing necessary policies is more important than pursuing individual goals, as many of Pakistan’s political actors seem to be doing today. However, human nature being what it is and given that Pakistan in particular is so politically unstable, it is unlikely that the country’s demographic problem will be solved anytime soon. This is unfortunate because it means that Pakistan’s tendency towards extremism and violence will continue to grow as it is slowly beset by a host of other socio-economic problems.

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