Amongst the tide of dismal economic data released ahead of the budget presentation are building the currents of the next crisis that could inundate Pakistan.
While media attention remains fixated – rightly so – on shorter-term problems such as the ever-growing threat of militancy, the cresting polarization of society, a recurring power crisis and an inflation rate that only seems to rise, the greater demographic problem facing the country is too often relegated to the sidelines. While actions taken to address the population explosion in Pakistan may appear less urgent – and will yield results evident only in the long-term – action must be taken now lest the currents building around this crisis crest into a tsunami.
The statistics are sobering, according to a piece in The Express Tribune:
- At 2.1 percent, Pakistan has the dubious honour of having South Asia’s highest population growth rate.
- On average, two people died and eight were born every minute in Pakistan in 2010, meaning the country’s population increased by six people every minute of the year, on average.
- This translates into a growth in the Pakistani population of half a million people in the last year. This would be added to the estimated population of 177.1 million as of July 1st 2010.
The implications of these statistics are both enormous and alarming. While power shortages, inflation and unemployment may be the current fault lines upon which the country’s economy is stumbling, adding this many people to the population every year could stretch even the strongest and most vibrant economy to the max.
As our education sector and national infrastructure are involved in a perennial game of catch-up to meet an ever growing demand, they too will fall behind in the face of an ever-increasing target populace. Evidence of this problem is already starting to take hold. Though Pakistan’s official literacy rate increased from 18 percent to 50 percent, according to numbers from 2009, the number of illiterate people in the country increased from 28 million to 48 million, according to UNESCO numbers.
In addition to a burgeoning population that threatens to overwhelm an already struggling education sector, the country’s massive youth bulge and continued population growth has severe economic impacts as well. The Labour Force Survey of 2009-2010 credits Pakistan with the ninth largest available labour force in the world at 54.92 million people. With an unemployment rate of 5.6 percent, this may appear to provide Pakistan with a formidable engine of economic growth, though 29.1 percent of those employed – more than two-thirds of whom are women – are working as “unpaid family helpers.”
Attempts to stem this growing population crisis have so far been far from successful, as the country’s population growth rate declined by only 1.01 percent in the last 30 years. From 1960 to the present, Pakistan’s population has quadrupled, according to a vice-president at Population Action International. Indeed, the United Nations’ recent population projections for Pakistan in 2050 increased by 45 million in two years. Citing the Economic Survey of Pakistan, The Express Tribune says one of the main reasons for this explosive growth is a shockingly low prevalence rate for contraceptives – the lowest “not just in South Asia but among major Muslim countries”. While Pakistan’s contraceptive prevalence rate stands at an appalling 30 percent, we are less than half the Asian average of 67 percent and even more significantly behind the rate of our neighbour, the Islamic Republic of Iran which boasts a contraceptive prevalence rate of 74 percent.
Indeed one reason Iran was able to control its population growth so successfully was because of – not in spite of – the conservative regime that governs it. Through a broad-based national campaign, the country was able to bring religious leaders into the discussion on family planning. This not only brought the issue into the mainstream but helped in the devising of a broad-based national policy that worked within, rather than against the country’s societal and cultural norms, developing an Iranian solution for an Iranian problem.
To begin such a process in Pakistan, we, as Pakistanis need to engender a national discussion on family planning and develop our own solutions to our looming population crisis, before it overwhelms us.