The Pulse

Pakistan’s Looming Demographic Crisis

Forget electoral crises and terrorism — Pakistan’s dangerous demographics might be its biggest threat.

Pakistan’s Looming Demographic Crisis
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Financial Times ran an interesting article a couple of days ago on the threat runaway population growth poses to Pakistan. According to the Population Council, a non-governmental organization based in New York, Pakistan’s population is projected to reach 302 million by 2050. Pakistan’s current population is around 200 million people while in 1947, the year it gained independence, Pakistan had only 33 million people.

The article notes that Pakistan’s rapidly increasing population will strain its “natural resources (especially water), government services, infrastructure, and families,” all of which are already overburdened. The future economic and political consequences of this population growth are dire, especially since Pakistan has not experienced the type of economic growth or industrialization necessary to employ millions of young people.

This is yet another example of how the Pakistani government’s failure to get its house in order and implement long-term developmental strategies is coming back to haunt it. 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 (in many tribal areas). 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 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 neighbors, including Iran, have also managed to lower their fertility rates.

The Indus valley and the Punjab region of Pakistan (Punjab means five rivers) 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 large population than many other countries with large fertility rates. However, Pakistan’s ability to sustain more people is reaching its limits.

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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 to most observers, including many Pakistanis, that Pakistan’s rivers are drying up because there are simply too many people, resulting in too much demand for water and agriculture.

There are indications, however, that many Pakistanis, both men and women, want to have fewer children but cannot do so due to a lack of knowledge or a lack of contraceptives. Additionally, family planning is not widely or openly discussed in Pakistan due to the influence of religious leaders.

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.