Taking stock of Pakistan’s social problems

Can Pakistan survive the burgeoning population pressure and accompanied food, water and power shortages?

Taking stock of Pakistan’s social problems



With China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) in the wings and a successive democratic government about to complete its term, it is difficult to imagine any doomsday scenario about the future of Pakistan. However, our economic, security, and socio religious challenges are such that we need to look beyond the immediate future and take into account the blowback from ‘black swan’ events. Can Pakistan survive the burgeoning population pressure and accompanied food, water and power shortages? Will the country continue with borrowed growth?

The demographic time bomb is ticking as our population is set to rise to 335 million by 2050. If fertility rates are not discouraged, the estimate may need to be revised upward to 460 million. With 40 million people already living below the poverty line and one in four children malnourished, such a rate of population growth would put immense strain on resources. Pakistan has coped with population growth by exporting labour, which may not be an option any longer given the economic downturn, higher demand in the Middle East for skilled workforce, and curbs on immigration in the West. Internal migration also eases pressures but our cities are already chocking as a result of one-way traffic of migrants from rural areas. A combination of poverty and conservative Islamic values has meant that Pakistan has had a chequered record regarding efforts to reduce birth rates. However, there are instances in our region where other countries with such attributes have managed to control birth rates. Iran has a conservative society and Indonesia is comparable to Pakistan in terms of its population but both countries have brought their birth rates to a level half that of ours.

Family planning must be accompanied by educational reforms and poverty alleviation to have the desired effect. In this regard, Bangladesh is a good example where economic empowerment of women has reduced birth rates even in the face of poverty.

Educating the growing youth population is essential if we want them to become an asset rather than a threat to social cohesion. We have seen robust educational reforms come and go without much impact. Until recently, Pakistan allocated only 2 percent of its GDP to education — most of this allocation has been poorly utilised due to corruption and administrative incapacity.

It is also important to pay attention to the values encouraged by the education system. Curriculum reform of madaris has been mooted but no effective implementation is yet in sight. The plan to review textbooks, which reinforce stereotypes that hinder social cohesion and regional relations, is in disarray.

More emphasis is also required on technical and non-university education. Importance of female education cannot be overstated because a third of our women are illiterate and only one fifth are participating in the workforce. A mature approach to Pakistan’s history and encouragement of education, which stimulates rather than suppresses critical thinking, is needed. Pakistan can learn from the experience of other developing countries in this regard.

Alongside the demographic and education time bombs, Pakistan is also facing shortfall of energy and water supply. Growing demand is a factor, but the effects of climate change and governance failure cannot be ignored. Current energy shortfall is about five gigawatts and government’s promise to cut down loadshedding to 3-4 hours this summer has already evaporated into thin air. The availability of water supply in urban areas has dropped from 5000 cubic meters per capita in the 1950s to about 1500 cubic meters per capita, and is estimated to drop further to 850 cubic meters per capita by 2020.

The worst-case scenario for our future points to water-wars with India. Yet, water could also be a source of collaboration between the two countries as the only effective longer-term agreement reached between them has been on the issue of water in the form of the Indus Water Treaty signed in 1960. Though, India is building dams upstream on tributaries to the Indus, Pakistan’s prospects could still improve if it continues a dialogue with India while upgrading its water management technology rather than going for big dams that are financially and politically costly and result in damage to the environment. Water and energy security are a source of tension but they can also be an opportunity to collaborate with neighbouring countries like Iran, Afghanistan, India and China.

Pakistan’s weak political institutionalisation was inherited from the freedom movement which lacked much ideological strength except for a commitment to Islam and nationalism.

We need a sense of purpose to meet the challenges of education and provision of social justice. In a country with a history of short-term thinking and a lack of consistency in any policy except that against Indian military domination, this will require coordination at a massive scale.

The security policy makers need to realise that attempts to counter-balance India thorough an arms race and the use of non-state actors has come at the cost of sectarian conflict, economic dependency, and democratic fragility.

The checklist of requirements for improved governance in Pakistan is a no-brainer. It starts with effective delivery of services and transparency in economy and tax raising capability, and ends with reforms in key institutions including the bureaucracy, the military, the police, and political parties.

Success in one area of reform is likely to improve prospects in other areas. If the state is proactive in delivering basic services, resistance to widening the tax net would diminish; and increased political legitimacy would kill the possibility of military interventions.

Yet, the dangers arising from the population and environmental pressures are far greater than the security crises. It seems unlikely that Pakistan could muddle through these without a major turnaround in relevant national policies in the next decade.


The writer is a consultant psychiatrist and director of medical education