While much is said about climate change and the accelerated increase in population in Pakistan, the link between the two is often overlooked
Pakistan’s population is expected to swell to 403 million in the next 31 years, according to a recent United Nations report. The 2017 census shows that Pakistan’s population is already higher than 200 million. Between 1990 and 2019, Pakistan has moved up from the 8th to the 5th most populous nation in the world.
Juxtapose these statistics against these facts: Pakistan is the 7th most vulnerable country affected by climate change. The infamous Karachi heat wave of 2015 resulted in more than 1200 fatalities. The intensity and persistence of heat all over the country is continuing to grow. Nawabshah, Sindh, had a temperature peak recorded at 50.2 degrees Celsius in 2018, the highest temperature ever recorded globally in the month of April. According to the Inter Press Service report, Pakistan’s Battle Against Climate Change, "Pakistan has faced around 150 freak weather incidents as a result of climate change in the past 20 years: flash floods, smog in winter, forest fires in summer, melting glaciers, heat waves, landsides, displaced population, etc". It further states the floods of 2010 affected 18 to 20 million people and flooded one-fifth of Pakistan’s land mass.
The cost of climate change is heavy on the already weak and struggling economy of the world’s 5th most populous nation. Yet, while much is written and said about climate change and the accelerated increase in population in Pakistan, the link between these two is often overlooked.
"Neglecting this link is missing the very essential point of why Pakistan is facing impacts of climate change," says Dr Zeba Sathar, Country Director of the Population Council in Pakistan. She adds that those with large households and those living in poverty are frequently those living on the margins that are affected, if not devastated, by extreme climate events. She adds that people with large households, as opposed to those living in poverty, are the ones that are frequently affected, if not devastated, by extreme climate events. "If you do not factor in who is vulnerable to climate change, how can you tackle issues like risk aversion and adaptation?"
"If the current population growth rate is not controlled, common sense says that the load on the current ecosystem will increase dramatically," according to Ali Tauqeer Sheikh, CEO of Leadership for Environment and Development (LEAD) Pakistan. "What we need is a more responsible growth rate that can sustain the ecosystem. Ecosystems include health services. If they collapse, there will be a resulting increase in incidences of malnutrition and stunted children," he says.
Sheikh shares that urbanisation is a key aspect in all of this. "Districts with less forestry, less agriculture, less vegetation and less water are the districts where poverty peaks, as does outward migration."
Sheikh is also concerned about the rate of urban growth which is double of population growth rate. "Urban sprawling, irregular human settlements are connected to migration towards urban areas mostly from climate change-impacted areas."
Dr Farid Midhet, a population and health expert, says: "Pakistan-specific population-related problem is migration from rural to urban areas. This results into squatter settlements without any civic facilities. Karachi’s 40 percent population lives in such areas, which have no facilities for drainage or waste disposal".
Unfortunately, Pakistan has a semi-literate population and a largely lawless society, "which results in population overgrowth and environmental damage at the same time". He believes that Pakistan is facing an environmental crisis, "which is probably going to worsen with time as population increase is completely unchecked".
Dr John Bongaarts, vice president of the Populations Council, is of the opinion that given the urgency of the problem and the lack of political will, less conventional approaches to limit climate change should be given higher priority. "Addressing rapid population growth is one such policy that has thus far been ignored by the international climate community. The expected addition of several billion people to the planet by the end of this century will make it much more difficult to slow or halt climate change." Bongaarts adds that studies show slower future population growth could reduce global emissions by an estimated 40 percent or more in the long term. "Over the next few decades, overall emissions from low income countries such as Pakistan are likely to rise rapidly because of a rise in emissions per capita from rapid industrialisation, as well as because of increasing population."
Research by LEAD states that the geographical location and socio-economic fragility of developing countries makes them more vulnerable to the environmental, social and economic ramifications of climate change and the lack of resources and capabilities to adapt to the changes worsen the situation -- people who live in poverty around the world, then, are hardest hit by climate change.
Thus, while developing countries like Pakistan are least responsible for the dramatic changes in global climate, our communities suffer the most.
"It is also a very political issue, and for developing countries, it also becomes an issue of justice," says Dr Adil Najam, Dean of the Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University. "My emissions, living affluently in the USA, driving 30 miles each way to work every day, surrounded by cheap oil and technological waste, are very different from the emissions of a poor Pakistani living in a remote village. Not only is the quantum of emissions different, but the type of emissions is different -- the first are luxury emissions and the second are survival emissions."
Najam feels that the poor will pay twice if their population growth remains high, "mostly because the rich -- whether in rich countries or the rich within our own country -- have been gluttons in usurping the resources the poor need for their survival."
He feels that the lens through which countries like Pakistan have to view population growth is "adaptation". "More people living in a changing climate will mean that more will need to adapt to the new Age of Adaptation. That will impose burdens of new costs on the country and, most importantly, on the poorest communities in the country. My general sense remains that we should focus on people and the well-being of people rather than on the numbers or growth rates of population."
The answer, then, seems to lie in adaptation. Najam says that adaptation is about coping strategies -- what we do to cope with heat waves or floods or melting glaciers or droughts. "Adaptation is best defined as the failure of mitigation. Mitigation is about reducing emissions. Adaptation is about developing resilience, and that is about development."
Given that the poorest are also the most vulnerable to climate change, and that is also where the largest population growth tends to be, he feels that it is imperative to think of reducing population growth not as a strategy to reduce emissions, but as a strategy to enable people to have more development, to build the resilience that they will need to cope with the inevitable impacts of climate change. "More population will not only mean that more people will have to deal with these impacts; it also means that the meager resources will have to be shared between more people and that each poor person will have less to build their resilience on."