The South Asia Channel

Pakistan's demographic dilemma

Pakistan's 2011 census kicked off in April, but less than three months later, it is embroiled in controversy. Several members of the Sindh Census Monitoring Committee have rejected as "seriously flawed" the recently completed household count. They allege that census workers, directed by an unspecified "ethnic group," have counted Karachi's "inns, washrooms, and even electric poles" as households in an effort to dilute the city's native "Sindhi" presence.

These Census Monitoring Committee members are not the only Pakistani politicians to be concerned about the census. Pakistan is experiencing rapid urbanization; while a third of the country's people have long been rurally based, at least 50 percent of the population is expected to live in cities by the 2020s. Pakistan's political leadership draws much of its power from rural landholdings, power that could be greatly reduced if a census confirms this migration toward cities.

This politicization underscores the perils of census-taking in Pakistan. In many other nations, it is a routine process completed regularly. Yet in Pakistan, myriad factors -- from catastrophic flooding and insufficient funding to the turbulent security situation and intense political opposition -- have conspired to delay it for three consecutive years, making the country census-less since 1998.

Accurate census data enables governments to make decisions about how to best allocate resources and services. In Pakistan, such decisions are critical. Consider that its current population, estimated at about 175 million, is the world's sixth-largest. It has the highest population growth, birth, and fertility rates in South Asia -- one of the last regions, along with sub-Saharan Africa, still experiencing young and rapidly rising populations. Additionally, with a median age of 21, Pakistan's population is profoundly youthful. Two-thirds are less than 30 years old, and as a percentage of total population, only Yemen has more people under 24.

According to some demographers, these conditions present opportunities. If a large, youthful population enters the workforce in droves, it can spark economic growth and free up state resources to be used for social welfare. In an era of endlessly bad news about Pakistan, it is tantalizing to envision the effects of attaining this "demographic dividend" in the country. Imagine a million new employees flocking to Pakistan's burgeoning IT industry, a scenario economist Shahid Javed Burki predicts could generate $20 billion in export earnings. Or visualize a new generation of engineers and scientists unlocking the potential of Pakistan's massive underground mineral reserves, estimated to be valued in the trillions of dollars.

Such cheery thoughts, however, overlook the dreadful state of Pakistan's school system and economy. If Pakistanis are to enter the workforce, they will need to be properly educated -- yet a staggering 40 million out of Pakistan's 70 million 5-to-19-year-olds are not in school. Additionally, if Pakistanis are to be gainfully employed, the economy must be large enough to absorb them, no simple feat in a labor economy that at present creates only a million new jobs a year, yet could face 175 million potential workers by 2030 (current unemployment runs at about 15 percent, and underemployment is substantial as well). Unsurprisingly, Pakistan's Planning Commission deputy chairman estimated last year that in order to employ Pakistan's nearly 100-million-strong under-20 population, GDP growth will need to soar to 9 percent (it is currently mired at 2.4 percent).

The most likely and devastating consequence of Pakistan's demographic dilemma is natural resource scarcity. Pakistan is already desperately short on water and land. Water availability has plummeted from about 5,000 cubic meters per capita in the 1950s to less than 1,500 today -- perilously close to the 1,000 cubic meters per capita level designated as water-scarce. Meanwhile, according to one striking estimate, Pakistan loses nearly three acres of good agricultural land every 20 minutes. Given Pakistan's population density of roughly 230 people per square kilometer, such shortfalls put immense pressure on remaining supply. Finally, as illustrated by Pakistan's constant blackouts, the country's energy grid is already under major pressure, a problem that will only grow worse with demographic pressure if no action is taken.

Compounding these constraints is Pakistan's poor resource governance. At least 90 percent of Pakistan's water resources are used for agriculture, yet the country's farming sector is ravaged by water wastage. Flood irrigation is used much more than water-saving drip irrigation, while sugar and wheat -- some of the world's most water-intensive crops -- dominate Pakistan's agricultural mix.

Then there is leakage. Water expert Simi Kamal calculates that simply plugging the country's leaky canal system would free up 10 times more water than would be generated by a large dam. Islamabad, however, not only builds large dams, but also constructs gigantic water fountains and leases large swaths of farmland to foreign investors for large-scale agricultural production. This all adds to the strain on precious water and land supplies.

Unless Pakistan's natural resource governance takes a dramatic turn for the more judicious, resource scarcity could soon be more reality than threat. Here, it is instructive to juxtapose Pakistan's future population projections with those of natural resource supply. According to the U.N. Population Division's newest mid-range estimates, Pakistan's population will rise to 275 million by 2050. However, this estimate optimistically assumes an eventual drop in Pakistan's total fertility rate (TFR), which now registers at about 3.6 children per woman. Assuming TFR remains constant -- by no means an unlikely prospect, given that the country's contraceptive prevalence rate hovers at only 30 percent -- the projections soar to nearly 380 million people.

Meanwhile, as early as 2025, Pakistan's total water demand is expected to exceed availability by 100 billion cubic meters. This deficit represents five times the amount of water that can presently be stored in the reservoirs of the vast Indus River system. Put differently, in less than 15 years, Pakistan's chief water storage source could fall far short of satisfying demand for humanity's lifeblood.

To overcome its demographic (and concurrent resource) challenges, Pakistan will need to revamp its educational system, enlarge its economy, and expand access to family planning services. These represent herculean tasks in the best of times, and Pakistan is experiencing one of the more traumatic periods in its history.

Yet this all amounts to putting the cart before the horse. Pakistan cannot expect to make progress on population policy until the nation is willing to accord priority to population issues, which starts with having accurate data about the country's population. "At no point," according to Zeba Sathar, one of Pakistan's most respected demographers, "has serious attention been devoted to studying Pakistan's large population numbers, their distribution, and the implications they hold for the country's development, politics, and ultimate stability."

This must change. To its credit, Islamabad has signaled its intention to bring demographics to the policy front burner. It has christened 2011 as "Population Year" and has declared -- in the words of Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani -- that "all hopes of development and economic prosperity would flounder if we as a nation lose the focus and do not keep [the] population issue in the spotlight."

The first step is to complete that census. The Population Census Organization estimates that assuming all goes well, data collection will be completed by the end of the year. Here's hoping that natural disasters take the rest of 2011 off, political point-scoring abates, financing proliferates, and security improves just a bit -- so that Pakistan can take an initial step toward tackling what may well be its greatest development challenge.

Michael Kugelman is the South Asia associate at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and lead editor of "Reaping the Dividend: Overcoming Pakistan's Demographic Challenges."

BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images