Alarming numbers

December 09, 2019

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The writer is chief executive of the Civil Society Coalition for Climate Change.
The writer is chief executive of the Civil Society Coalition for Climate Change.

‘FOOD, water and energy’ is a regular theme at conferences. The nexus is very important and needs to be highlighted but it is time now to also start talking about the nexus between climate change, population and vulnerability.

It is easy to make the connection between climate change and vulnerability but as population growth rate is not a direct cause or consequence of climate change, it is often overlooked.

However the crux of the matter rests on the population growth rate. We had a very good family planning programme in Pakistan in the 1960s and 1970s but somewhere along the line the focus was lost and the population exploded beyond the bearing capacity of the state and the concomitant services needed for the burgeoning numbers.

Population and particularly the youth bulge in Pakistanis is projected as a dividend. But the Human Development Index does not reflect a very a promising picture. Women are half the population but have only 22 per cent participation in the work force and that too in the lower tiers of employment, 38pc of the population is stunted, in other words suffering from cognitive impairment, 29pc live below the poverty line, 64pc don’t have access to safe drinking water and 52pc lack hygiene and sanitation services in rural areas.

We should be talking about a population emergency.

Twenty-five million children are out of school with a poor transition rate for the girl child from primary to middle and high school. Pakistan was unable to meet the MDGs and is not positioned well to achieve the SDGs.

In the gender parity index, Pakistan ranks at the bottom of the list and in the vulnerability index it consistently ranks among the top 10 countries. This should be a subject of serious discussion at the policy level on managing the emerging number crisis. The world is talking about a climate emergency but we should be talking about a population emergency because our growing numbers will become our biggest nemesis.

Climate change will just be a catalyst that will exacerbate existing conditions. If we were a country of 100m instead of 208m, we would have no water scarcity, no energy crisis, jobs for everyone, less emissions from vehicles (clean air) less expenditure on road infrastructure, more and better equipped health and education services, balance between built and natural environment and a healthy combination of rural and urban populations working for a prosperous Pakistan.

As things stand, with the present rate of growth, we are projecting our population to increase to 400m by 2040. In this scenario, we will have double the population, half the land for agriculture and half the water that is available to us today for irrigation and domestic use. With more disasters and mass migrations of populations from areas where heat will make survivability impossible along with increase in disease and shortage of food and jobs, we are looking at a humanitarian crisis in the making.

The main difference between developed countries and us is that developed countries have kept a balance between population and resource utilization and invested in quality of human resource, not considering mere numbers as dividends.

We have increased our numbers mindlessly, not invested in human resource, kept women out of the decision-making loop and created an elitist society at the expense of the ordinary citizen. The numbers of the have-nots by far exceed those who are privileged; the time is not far when the impacts of climate change will push the vulnerable against the wall, forcing them to react and retaliate through actions that will create a law-and-order situation resulting in strife and violent conflict.

The most urgent need is to launch a campaign to control our population growth rate. The average family size in rural areas is eight which means those who have less are producing more and adding to the numbers living on the margins. Reducing the population growth rate should be our first priority as no other programme, policy or initiative will produce results without managing the numbers. The greater our numbers, the higher our vulnerability and risk of violence and disruption in society.

Bangladesh has emerged as an example of how a country can improve its social and economic indicators by controlling its population growth rate and empowering women. We often like to cite China as a country that has risen as an economic giant or give the examples of prosperity in Singapore and South Korea.

But the reason for their upward trajectory becomes evident with one look at their population growth rate and the status of women in society. Without controlling our population and empowering women we will not have the capacity to meet the formidable challenges of climate change and all its attendant social and economic woes.

The writer is chief executive of the Civil Society Coalition for Climate Change.

aisha@csccc.org.pk

Published in Dawn, December 9th, 2019