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Hilal English

Rising Cities, Shrinking Spaces: Tackling Overpopulation and Urbanization in Pakistan

March 2024

Pakistan faces a significant urban housing deficit, particularly in cities like Karachi. High fertility rates, limited contraceptive use, and early marriages contribute to population-related issues, prompting government initiatives for a more sustainable future.

Pakistan is globally recognized as a country grappling with challenges in controlling its population growth. With an alarming growth rate of 2.4 percent per annum, resulting in the addition of 4 to 5 million children each year, this issue poses nothing less than an existential threat. Unfortunately, there is still no well-thought-out and cohesive population control program in sight. Between 1951 and 2017, Pakistan's population surged over sixfold, escalating from 33.7 million to 207.7 million. The country maintains a relatively high, albeit declining, growth rate, fueled by elevated birth rates and diminished death rates, with an average annual growth rate of +2.40 percent between 1998 and 2017.
In major cities such as Karachi, Lahore, Rawalpindi, and Faisalabad, a significant portion of the population resides in rented houses or apartments. According to a report by the State Bank of Pakistan (SBP), urban areas in major Pakistani cities are currently grappling with a shortfall of approximately 10 million houses compared to the actual demand. If current trends persist and policymakers fail to address population explosion and urbanization, it is projected that by 2035, only five major cities in Pakistan will contribute to 79 percent of the total housing shortage. Even with controlled population growth, the increasing demand for houses, particularly by nuclear families, will continue to strain the housing sector. The International Growth Centre (IGC) ranks Pakistan eighth among the top 10 countries holding 60 percent of the world's substandard houses.
With urbanization comes a demand for an efficient mass transit system, particularly in Karachi, the largest city in Pakistan. Despite the high demand, Karachi faces a lack of adequate public transport facilities, posing a significant challenge to urban development. Poor healthcare facilities, pollution, and inadequate sanitation in impoverished urban areas contribute to malnutrition and child mortality, exacerbating the urbanization challenges. The absence of educational and health infrastructure in smaller cities leads to migration towards larger cities, straining service delivery as the urban population expands. The demographic history of Pakistan, from the ancient Indus Valley Civilization to the present, reflects the settlement of diverse cultures and ethnic groups from Eurasia and the Middle East in the region.
While Urdu serves as Pakistan's lingua franca, the country boasts a linguistic diversity with estimates of spoken languages ranging from 75 to 85. In 2017, the three predominant ethnolinguistic groups were Punjabis (38.8 percent of the population), Pashtuns (18.2 percent), and Sindhis (14.6 percent).1 Pakistan is believed to host the world's fourth-largest refugee population, with an estimated 1.4 million refugees as of mid-2021, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

According to a report by the State Bank of Pakistan (SBP), urban areas in major Pakistani cities are currently grappling with a shortfall of approximately 10 million houses compared to the actual demand. If current trends persist and policymakers fail to address population explosion and urbanization, it is projected that by 2035, only five major cities in Pakistan will contribute to 79 percent of the total housing shortage.

The major factors contributing to high population growth in Pakistan include elevated fertility rates, limited contraceptive use, a significant unmet need for family planning, decreasing mortality rates, prevalent early marriages, son preference, poverty, women's low literacy levels, insufficient empowerment, religious restrictions, cultural norms, and the absence of a monitoring system to regulate health centers and record population growth. Despite having one of the world's oldest population welfare programs, Pakistan has not witnessed progress comparable to other nations like Bangladesh and Indonesia.
To achieve high middle-income country status, Pakistan must halve its current population growth rate in the next 30 years, as the current pace hinders prosperity. Addressing these concerns involves implementing family planning initiatives, with offices established at ministry, district, and tehsil levels, along with centers in cities and towns. 
Pakistan has the highest urbanization rate in South Asia, with 36.4 percent of the population residing in urban areas according to the 2017 Census. The UN Population Division projects that by 2025, almost half of the country's population will be in cities. Despite this, Pakistan faces a substantial housing deficit of nearly 10 million units, leading to housing shortages and the emergence of slums, highlighting a disparity between urban population growth and available housing units.
The Way Forward
Promoting Family Planning and Reproductive Health.
Enhancing access to family planning services and providing reproductive health education can empower individuals to manage family size, contributing to a decline in population growth.
Education and Economic Development. Investing in education and economic growth can alleviate poverty, raising awareness of family planning and providing resources for smaller families.
Encourage Urban Planning. Fostering urban planning and development can ease strain on urban infrastructure, improve living conditions, and mitigate overcrowding.
Improve Living Standards and Access to Resources. Enhancing living standards and access to housing, healthcare, and education can alleviate poverty and reduce fertility rates.
Government Policies. Implementing policies like tax incentives for smaller families and penalties for exceeding a certain number of children can assist in controlling population growth.
Promoting Sustainable Development. Advocating for sustainable development and environmental protection helps alleviate resource strain, protect the environment, and improve overall well-being, contributing to a reduction in population growth.
Pakistan's struggle with population growth necessitates urgent and comprehensive strategies. Inadequate housing, insufficient public services, and the strain on resources underscore the need for immediate action. Encouraging urban planning, improving living standards, and promoting sustainable development can alleviate these challenges. The path forward requires a holistic approach to secure a better future for Pakistan, balancing population control with socioeconomic progress and environmental sustainability.

1. “Wayback Machine.” 2022. Web.archive.org. April 9, 2022. https://web.archive.org/web/20220409115251/https://www.pbs.gov.pk/sites/default/files//population_census/census_2017_tables/pakistan/Table11n.pdf.