Large population: a boon or bane

November 26, 2023

Overpopulation leads to high demand for resources, putting immense pressure on scarce reserves

Large population: a boon or bane


he 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted by the United Nations member states in 2015, provides a blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future.

It stipulates that poverty cannot be ended by 2030 if the member states act in isolation. At its heart are 17 sustainable development goals, an urgent call for action by all countries — developed and developing — in a global partnership.

It is amazing that a single factor, population planning, can determine the success or failure in a comprehensible way. Overpopulation can destroy any or all development that creates pathways for achieving these goals.

The progress made up to this point is far from satisfactory. The effect of overpopulation is conspicuous in all sectors. One of the many ways in which it is making the attainment of the development goals is by reducing water availability.

In Pakistan, where water intensive agriculture forms the backbone of the economy, water scarcity is a threat to food security and livelihoods.

Improvement in agricultural productivity, the so-called Green Revolution, is reliant on availability of the water. However, water availability has decreased as a result of the Indus Waters Treaty reached with India in 1960 that surrendered three eastern rivers to that country. As population increases, per capita water availability goes down.

Pakistan receives an average of 144 million acre feet of water from the Indus and its tributaries. The amount has to be shared between aquifer replenishment and consumptive uses. The storage capacity at Tarbela, Mangla and Chashma is decreasing by the year on account of silting.

In big cities like Lahore and Karachi, the availability of water has become a serious issue. In Lahore, the groundwater levels have been going down by 2.5–3 feet per year due to over-extraction.

A larger population also results in higher sewage and industrial discharges that contaminate the freshwater bodies as well as the aquifers. In Karachi, 93 percent of ground water is contaminated. This poses significant health risks to the population.

Look at the rising demand for water for households, agriculture and industries. By 2025, the demand-supply gap is expected to reach 83 million acre-feet. The population burden is depleting the resources needed to sustain the cities.

There are only two ways to improve the per capita availability of water. The first is to build more storage dams. If the population keeps growing, this will provide only a temporary relief. The second option is to work out a realistic population plan and execute it. If population is not planned, the relationship between overpopulation and resource depletion will aggravate the water scarcity.

A growing population leads to an increasing demand for resources, putting immense pressure on limited reserves of water, agricultural land and energy resources. This strain on the resources leads to their rapid depletion, impacting livelihoods and increasing poverty.

The resource poverty encourages overpopulation as many families seek more hands to secure diminishing essentials. This vicious cycle continues, with overpopulation intensifying resource depletion, which, in turn, fuels overpopulation.

Breaking this cycle requires comprehensive resource management policies, investment in sustainable technologies and educational initiatives, highlighting the critical link between overpopulation and resource scarcity.

There is a need for narratives that the population supports. The absence of such narratives, compounded by political uncertainty, erodes public confidence. This puts public policy initiatives on the pathway to failure.

Historian Yuval Noah Harari says that humans have a unique ability to create and believe in shared narratives, which he calls “inter-subjective realities.” These narratives, whether religious, political or cultural, help unify large populations by giving them a common purpose and identity.

In 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, Harari discusses how the internet and social media have made it easier for different groups to create and propagate their narratives, leading to increased polarisation and uncertainty. These narratives provide frameworks for understanding the world and guide individuals in their actions and decisions. Shared myths have been essential tools for humans to cooperate in large groups and build complex societies.

It is essential to build a narrative in Pakistan like they did in Bangladesh. Once a foundation has been laid, political parties may continue the race. Building campaigns and policies on successful awareness campaigns is an international best practice.

Innovative approaches behind awareness campaigns can have a decisive impact on behaviours. This gives political parties a chance to put forth and promote principles and practices in their manifestos and later follow up with legislative and administrative measures.

The writer is a researcher and host. He can be reached at His X handle: @tahirdhindsa

Large population: a boon or bane