Rolling out the Red Carpet

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Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Doom and Gloom

In 1971, population biologist Paul Ehrlich estimated that if human numbers kept increasing at the high rates of the time, by around 2900 the planet would be teeming with sixty million billion people (that’s 60,000,000,000,000,000). But the rate of population rise actually peaked in the 1960s and demographers expect a leveling-off of human numbers this century.

No kidding. If the current growth rate continued, in 130 years Pakistan’s population will be equal to the population of world today.

The population of Pakistan in mid-2004 was 159.2 million, births per 1000 are 34 and deaths per 1000 are 10. Pakistan’s rate of natural increase in population growth is 2.4 percent, and projected population in the year 2025 and 2050 would be 228.8 and 295.0 million, respectively. The projected population change in 2004-2050 would be 85 percent.

In 1950 Pakistan had a population of about 40 million people. Since then it has grown many times. But the real population explosion in Pakistan will only come over the next few decades, because the country not only has a very young population, but also still an extremely high fertility - much higher. These large numbers of children and young adults will soon come into reproductive age and will produce a large number of offsprings.

The latest facts and figures state that future population prospects are shaped in large part by the age profile of its citizens. More than half of Pakistan's population is below the age of fifteen; nearly a third is below the age of nine. Pakistan is one of the few countries in the world with an inverse sex ratio: official sources claim there are 111 men for every 100 women. The discrepancy is particularly obvious among people over fifty: men account for 7.1 percent of the country's total population and women for less than 5 percent. This figure reflects the secondary status of females in Pakistani society, especially their lack of access to quality medical care.

In population Pakistan ranks sixth in the world and its land area stands at thirty-second position among nations. Thus Pakistan has about 2 percent of the world's population living on less than 0.7 percent of the world's land. In the year 2050, Pakistan would continue to gracefully stand elevated among top 5 population giants. Pakistan cannot be pulled out of the poverty trap with 3 million additional births every year.

Pakistan is poised to more than double its size by 2050 even as supplies of water, forests, and food crops are already showing signs of strain and other species are being squeezed into smaller and smaller ranges.

A huge consumption gap exists between industrialized and developing countries and Pakistan. The world's richest countries, with 20 per cent of global population, account for 86 per cent of total private consumption, whereas the poorest 20 per cent of the world's people account for just 1.3 per cent.

A newborn in the USA or Europe will put greater pressure on the Earth’s carrying capacity than a whole family of newborns in Pakistan. Numbers and the Earth’s ability to provide are increasingly framed by the realities of gender relations. It is now generally agreed that while enabling larger numbers of women and men to use modern methods of family planning is essential, it is not sufficient. By expanding the choices and capacities of women, a central thread can be formed in the population story. Consumption—what we need and what we want—is, too.

Pakistan's people are not evenly distributed throughout the country. There is an average of 146 persons per square kilometer, but the density varies dramatically, ranging from scarcely populated arid areas, especially in Balochistan, to some of the highest urban densities in the world, such as Karachi and Lahore.

Municipal governments in Pakistan are least able to muster the human and financial resources to contend with these problems, especially when the poorest, non-taxable segment of the urban population continues to grow rapidly.

The risks of instability among youth may increase when skilled members of elite classes are marginalized by a lack of opportunity. It isn’t difficult to find contemporary parallels. The collapse of the Communist regime in the Soviet Union in the early 1990s was partly due to the mobilization of large numbers of discontented young men who were unable to put their technical education to use due to party restrictions on entering the elite.

The greatest challenge before government hence is the need to tackle the underlying factors contributing to discontent among young people, including poverty and the lack of economic opportunity. It can address part of the risk associated with youth unemployment by investing in job creation and training, boosting access to credit, and promoting entrepreneurship.

Eventually, however, the only way to achieve the necessary long-term changes in age structure will be through declines in fertility. Government can facilitate fertility decline by supporting policies and programs that provide access to reproductive health services and by promoting policies that increase girls’ educational attainment and boost women’s opportunities for employment outside the home.

The stewardship of the planet and the well-being of its people are a collective responsibility. Everywhere we face critical decisions. Some are about how to protect and promote fundamental values such as the right to health and human dignity. Others reflect trade-offs between available options, or the desire to broaden the range of choice. We need to think carefully but urgently about what the choices are, and to take every action that will broaden choices and extend the time in which to understand their implications. We need a decision today not just to bring down the birth rate but also to attain a balance between resources and population. For a secure future this goal must be pursued vigorously through sound population management. Asif J. Mir, Organizational Transformation