Need to contain surging population

Saleem Shaikh

Tuesday, August 07, 2012 - Rapidly swelling population in Pakistan has become a major cause of or aggravated different socio-economic, environmental problems and is building up more pressure on fast shrinking natural resource base. The situation of access to clean drinking water, safe sanitation, health, education has particularly aggravated to an alarming extent. Surging population has also added more pressure on the ailing public infrastructure such as water and sewerage systems.

With education and health facilities already under pressure, existing network of public schools and hospitals have become inadequate to serve swelling population. Employment sector is equally under virulent stress and there are not adequate jobs left for growing population. Consequently, soaring unemployment has pushed up crime levels to new heights and deepened social instability. Pakistan’s population has surged exponentially from 33 million in 1947 to over 180 million in 2012. Over the last 65 years, there has been a phenomenal increase in the national population by 353 percent. With over three million Pakistanis born each year, the country is the second largest contributor to the world population swell after India. The total fertility rate stands at 3.2, the highest in the South Asia region.

Because, women in Pakistan have more children than its neighbours. According to United Nations Population Fund, today Pakistani population is five times as bigger as it was in 1950 and about four million people are added to it every year. By 2050, the population in the country is much likely to hit estimated 309 million mark and that would make it the fourth largest country in the world after China, India and USA. The country’s planners have yet to realise that rampant poverty in the country, worsening civic amenities, poor health facilities, increasing crimes in cities, pollution or water shortages for farming as well as for household consumption, all have their roots in unchecked surging population. For Pakistan it is not easy to tackle its socio-economic problems, with average number of children born per woman exceeding five in rural areas and the urban slums. Whereas, the comparative fertility rates per woman is 1.9 in Iran, two in Turkey, 2.2 in Indonesia and 2.5 in Bangladesh, which all had similar fertility levels in the 1970s.

According to the 1998 census, Pakistan’s population growth rate during the decade stood at about 2.6 percent per annum. Since then, the rate has plummeted. But still with a 2 percent growth rate per annum, the country’s population in the next two decades will exceed that of Indonesia, making it the largest Muslim country in the world. According to a World Bank report in 2006, 22.6 percent of population in Pakistan lives below the poverty line, earning less than $1.25 per day. But these numbers have increased since then, particularly following the recent devastating floods of 2010 and 2011 that have skyrocketed living costs. What is more saddening is that Pakistan is far from reaching the millennium development goals (MDGs) as over 45 percent of the population has limited or no access to any form of healthcare. Situation of access to clean potable water is not encouraging either.

The country’s water resources, in any form, are under virulent pressure because of the population growth, while failure of successive governments to build reservoirs to store water has only aggravated the situation of water accessibility. According to official reports, per capita water availability is currently at 1,011 cubic metres per capita, which is marginally above the minimum requirement of 1,000 cubic metres. In 1951, it was around 5,269 cubic meters. As population grows further, the per capita water availability would further drop to 877 cubic meters by 2020 when population will hit estimated 204 million mark.

So, this bitter reality makes family planning in Pakistan one of the most pressing causes that need immediate support and attention. But there are some independent experts, who believe that only promoting the technique of contraceptives for family planning is not adequate to address the problem of population growth. Empowerment of women in terms of provision of extended education and employment opportunities is equally important for enabling women to make decisions on sustainable and affordable size of family.

—The writer is deputy director at the Ministry of Climate Change in Islamabad.

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