Pakistan ranks high on the list of countries most threatened by the impending effects of climate change. Numerous studies show that temperatures in certain parts of Asia will exceed habitable levels by end of the 21st century.

According to a recent report published by the Asian Development Bank, a 6-degree Celsius temperature increase is projected over the Asian landmass whereby countries like Pakistan could experience a significantly hotter climate.

It won’t be just heat waves that will kill people; it is expected that the disruption in agricultural output and generally in the region’s economy will trigger deepening vulnerabilities at various scales: from country, cities and communities to households and individuals.

In southern Pakistan, cities like Karachi, Hyderabad-Jamshoro, Sukkur and coastal cities such as Badin are already at the forefront of climate change related impacts, ever more visible in the form of coastal storm surges, rising sea levels, hotter summers, unprecedented floods, human and livestock displacement and unpredictable precipitation.

A conceivable scenario of increasing temperatures could lead to a drastic change in Pakistan’s weather system and its industries and trade, and undermine any hope of achieving inclusive and sustainable development.

But attributing climate change to increasing vulnerabilities is at best a partial account about the limits to our planetary existence in the 21st century.

The urban question

A far more significant feature of the impending transformation concerns Pakistan’s rapidly expanding footprint of urbanisation and related ecological degradations that exacerbate vulnerability.

This is most visible, for instance, at the rural-urban interface where we find spaces of intense marginalisation, new forms of socio-spatial segregation, land-livelihood displacements and environmental degradation. These changes are altering the more familiar map of inner-city deprivation across Pakistan.

As analysts turn today to the urban question in Pakistan, estimates of scale and urban change proliferate. Despite the current controversy over methods of rural-urban classification in the 2017 Census, the preliminary results do show that an increasingly greater proportion of Pakistanis live in cities today, where all net new employment will be generated.

Transforming Pakistani cities into sustainable environments is the single biggest challenge that governments, policymakers and entrepreneurs face today, and the ongoing political struggles over resources, infrastructures, amenities and ecologies are shaping how cities play a role in climate adaption.

Notwithstanding the anticipated impacts on cities of climate change, vulnerability and danger are already conditioning the permutations of everyday life for ordinary citizens who are constantly put in harm’s way.

In urban Pakistan, the poor not only live in close proximity to toxic waste streams, but are often threatened by beautification projects that would displace and relocate them rather than improve amenities. These harsh material conditions that constantly endanger the lives of the urban poor, are not an outcome of climate change.

The effects of decades of unpredictable urban planning, incompetent engineering and the actions of greedy developers, have compromised local urban ecologies that could, otherwise, withstand the shock of natural disasters.

Recently, the extended period of heavy rainfall that crippled Karachi, flooded not only the city’s main infrastructural arteries, but also inundated emerging ‘unplanned’ settlements in peripheral parts such as Gadap Town.

More on this: Exploring why Karachi's rainwater has nowhere to go

Karachi’s flooding dilemma is largely due to the illegal developments on the city’s waterways and drains; developments that cater to the needs of rich and poor alike and literally choke the city’s natural drainage systems. Many developments also exemplify private builders’ attempts to reconfigure Karachi as a world-class city.

But the urban question as it relates to climate change isn’t just about cities and population size, which is a key lens through which Pakistan’s urban condition is conventionally understood, and it is the basis on which appropriate spatial boundaries are determined and policies made.

Given the relentless dynamics of socio-spatial restructuring since partition, boundaries, scale and the morphology of urbanisation and related ecologies have been continually reworked throughout the 20th century in Pakistan.

In large part, I believe that it is analytically fruitless to impose statistical fixity upon any settlement space, rural or urban. The rural-urban divide is not a quantitative fact.

The methodological conundrum of measuring and delineating urban populations is an old one. For a long time, demographic approaches have tried to resolve this vital spatial problem on a numerical basis: calculate how many people are required to reside in a given jurisdictional space and based on that, classify the ‘urban’.

In the mid-20th century, the eminent demographer Kingsley Davis was an early proponent of this approach, and his contributions have influenced a generation of demographers who continue to statistically chart the messy terrain of the rural-urban.

These orthodox attempts to code the ‘urban’ are largely rooted in a 20th century representation of a methodologically territorialist model of urbanisation; a model that is no longer helpful for understanding the process of planetary urbanisation in the 21st century.

Looking beyond the rural-urban divide

Despite Davis’ statistical penchants, he did make some nuanced observations about urbanisation. His observations are pertinent for considering Pakistan’s contemporary context that is embedded in the broader terrain of planetary urbanisation.

Davis had presciently underscored the dangers of confining the urban to a purely demographic approach. He had outlined a complex process of metropolitan expansion and dispersion that was already altering longstanding urban and regional configurations in Western countries in the mid-20th century.

Davis was considering the possibility that rurality was going to disappear entirely, and alongside this would emerge a different kind of urban existence. The relationship between the city and the countryside was changing in a such a way, that the two, Davis noted, would merge, leading to sprawling conurbations with no intervening countryside in the middle.

Davis subsequently proposed that data collection needed to remain cognisant of the powerful tendencies towards expanded urbanisation and shrinking rurality.

The urban cannot be understood as a bounded, enclosed site of social relations contrasted with the rural.

I take Davis’ point seriously given the socio-spatial fluidity that characterises our global urban condition under modern capitalism, where intensifying and interdependent socio-spatiality blurs the boundaries between rural and urban, and destabilises longstanding ecologies of agrarian, hinterland and coastal systems.

While urban spaces materialise through dynamics of movement, connectivity, circulation of commodities and reconfigurations of identity and attachments, these are also spaces of the accumulation of capital, the privatisation of common resources and the urbanisation of nature; where deforestation, concretisation, encroachment, land reclamation and land mining for development produce ecological ruptures.

A case in point is contemporary Karachi as a product of not only numerous ecological ruptures, but also a city whose relationship with the hinterlands or the agrarian-rural and the coastal is undergoing complex transformations.

Explore: Bahria Town Karachi: Greed unlimited

Thus, to carve sections of Karachi into a distinctly ‘urban’ space and relegate what lies outside as a ‘rural’ space by invoking a criteria of population size and administrative classification, ultimately prevents exploration of how these spaces are produced by the same political-economic process that includes not only capital accumulation, but also migration, privatisation of commons, and socio-environmental degradation.

The entrenched empiricism located in parochially defined theoretical/statistical certainties dominate Pakistan’s social sciences and the broader planning and policy making agendas.

This leads researchers to stress concrete investigations rather than to explore the underlying conceptual assumptions that frame those investigations in the first place.

So herein lies a key challenge for rethinking Pakistan’s contemporary urbanisation process and its bearing on climate change/adaptation.

Planetary urbanisation

Fundamentally, methodologically territorialist approaches rooted in 20th century epistemologies that treat the ‘urban’ and the ‘city’ as a bounded condition of settlement, have become archaic.

Such epistemologies represent a one-sided picture of an urbanising landscape that is variable and unremittingly dynamic.

The urban cannot be understood as a bounded, enclosed site of social relations contrasted with the rural.

These inherited assumptions obfuscate complex socio-spatial transformations of densely settled zones – megacities, city, metropolitan – that cannot be seen as exclusive agglomerations of clustered populations, economic activities and infrastructural systems, demarcated by an empty outside or a rural space.

Related: Census 2017: How can flawed results have any credibility?

In the history of modern capitalism and its relationship with the colonial/postcolonial, the terrain of the ‘rural’ was hardly an empty space or disconnected from the process of urbanisation.

Instead, the ‘rural’ or the ‘non-urban’ has evolved constantly through a complex, thickening web of infrastructural, economic and ecological connections with urban concentrations in virtually every part of the world.

These materialisations through densely, knotted circuits of labour, raw materials, energy, food, commodities, webs of social relations that connect/disconnect different places, cultural forms and more, mediate development pathways of planetary urbanisation in the 21st century.

Urbanisation today affects virtually every part of the world; it is a process that is unevenly woven into the fabric of socio-cultural and political-economic relations of capitalism.

The rural-urban binary as it pertains to theory, census methodologies, planning practice and everyday life doesn’t help; instead it obscures the frenzied socio-spatial transformations of the urban hinterlands and agrarian spaces within Pakistan.

The rapid transformation that is taking place in Pakistan is not within cities, but in its edges that are largely agricultural. Suburbanisation, de-agrarianisation, peripheral urbanisation, all these processes are interconnected and they index new modes of urbanisation; new modes of the production of urban space located at the limits of our planetary existence.

Planetary urbanisation produces wide-ranging socio-spatial conditions that necessitate the kind of contextual analysis that Kingsely Davis had briefly touched upon. This task has been taken up by critical urban theorists who combine critical cartography, geo-spatial-comparative analysis and political economy to investigate ongoing transformations.

My own interests align with such innovative analytical approaches of the urban in terms of thinking about the thickening webs of infrastructural connectivities/disconnectivities across the Asian landscape, across borders, cities, peripheries and so forth, and related displacements and endangerments for marginalised populations.

Planning urban futures

While we search for a new lexicon of urbanisation in order to grasp the unstable and violent geographies of 21st century capitalism in which Pakistan is deeply embedded, the question of the limits to our planetary existence in the context of unstable ecologies and the impending impacts of climate change is certainly germane.

In Pakistan, where governance is top down and land use is primarily within federal and provincial jurisdictions, and a fragmented structure of local governance exacerbates land-use decisions, city mayors and chief ministers are glorified managers whose actions are limited to platitudes or pushing for beautification projects and signal free transport corridors.

Such approaches are of limited use. Constructive solutions for a new urban future necessitate we take not only the city but also the wider region into consideration.

Further: Pakistan’s urban policy: Turning cities into slums

Realistic interventions that many urban planners in Pakistan have long professed, will need to push for conversations about climate change in the context of extended urbanisation, and that also pay attention to several key issues, such as urban design, land-use planning and zoning interventions.

These issues extend their reach into virtually every aspect of an individual’s well-being. Unfortunately, in Pakistan, political exigency at all levels of governance has ensured that these powerful tools remain underutilised.

But the uncomfortable fact remains that if we have already reached the limits to our planetary existence, then substantive changes are needed not only in terms of how we think about urbanisation, but also how we intend to reshape the future of our existing urban fabric.

Are you a policymaker, administrator or academic and have expertise on how to deal with Karachi's problems? Write to us at


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