Proving Malthus right

January 18, 2020

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The writer is country director, Population Council, Islamabad.
The writer is country director, Population Council, Islamabad.

THE State Bank of Pakistan, in its 2019 third quarter report, warned about food shortages due to climate change, also alerting us that the still unchecked population growth was alarming. As climate change exerts a growingly palpable influence on agricultural productivity, Pakistan might be on track to become one of the first countries in the world (barring a handful of failed states) to become proof of Malthusian pessimism: the idea that rapid growth in population would eventually cause demand for food and other essential resources to outstrip supply, leading to famine and other catastrophes.

Not too long ago, Bangladesh was considered a classic case of the Malthusian trap. With a population density of 900 people per square kilometre, it seemed overwhelmed by problems of food security and overpopulation. But the country made deliberate efforts to ensure development through unchanging policies, unstinting political commitment, and well-supported public- and private-sector family planning programmes with other investments in human capital. It has managed to find a new balance despite its huge initial disadvantage. Today, we may well ask wasn’t Bangladesh more vulnerable to climate change than Pakistan? Have we squandered our relative advantage and brought ourselves to the brink?

The warning signs should be enough to shred our veil of complacency and shake us out of our endless slumber.

A major rejoinder of Malthusian theory is that human innovation, science, and its application and development will lead to greater food production, allowing us to sustain greater numbers with sufficient food and health. This was definitely so in the 1960s and up to the 1990s, as new land became cultivatable, new seeds were introduced, new water channels were explored, and agricultural productivity grew positively. There were wheat excesses in the 1980s and 1990s. We could export wheat and were major exporters of basmati rice. The world looked to us as more than food sufficient. Why then have we reached a position of food shortages?

It would be naive to propose that changes and vagaries of climate alone have led to the acute shortages seen in the last few years. For the complete answer, we must acknowledge another trend: the rapid spiraling and unchecked population growth of over three per cent per annum during 1972-1998. In contrast, other countries in the region, most notably Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, had already started experiencing major declines in population growth. So while all the agricultural development and innovation did sustain us until and into the new century, the last decade has seen us reach the limits of that approach, amidst acute shortages and crises.

Climate change and population dynamics are of course closely intertwined, especially through water and water productivity, and impacts on agricultural livelihoods that push large numbers of people to seek alternatives. Climate change has compounded the pressure and certainly exacerbated some of the inequalities across regions — even north Punjab, the last to be affected, is now feeling the strain on agricultural productivity and incomes. But we cannot ignore the role of population dynamics in emerging food insecurity.

One of the major safety valves in the metaphorical pressure cooker for Pakistan has been migration, mostly internal, to major cities and towns, and to a large extent in the 1970s and 1980s to the Middle East. But as our urban infrastructure approaches breakdown, and the “exportability of our largely uneducated labour” remains an issue, where should the rural poor head now?

Land prices are skyrocketing as Pakistan relentlessly urbanises. This is driven not just by the shameless greed of land mafias to make yet one more housing scheme, but also by the rapidly increasing population, and the needs of the largest-ever cohort of young people as they enter family life. Population growth is thus impacting cultivable land not only through fragmentation, after division among large families, but also through the rapacious conversion of prime agricultural land into housing and commercial real estate; after all, millions more people require a roof over their heads!

But they also need food.

Not everyone will feel the gravity of food shortages creeping up upon us with the same intensity. For now, urban areas are protected as they still have the purchasing power to buy expensive food. And some of the less vulnerable and more viable ecological zones, such as barani areas, and irrigated lands of KP and Punjab are still achieving net gains in agriculture. But the situation is very different in the western dry plateau, dry western mountains, and sandy desert in the southern half of the country. These ecological zones, comprising most of Balochistan and large parts of Sindh, as well as parts of southern Punjab, are the worst hit by climate change and most fragile.

We must urgently prioritise food security and also find a way to generate livelihood opportunities to relieve the pressure in these vulnerable regions, crossing provincial boundaries. Special priority must be accorded to what could well turn into a famine in parts of Balochistan and Sindh if left unattended. Unless we do so, and also make an earnest effort to rein in population growth, food shortages will be upon us all in the end.

The warning signs should be enough to shred our veil of complacency and shake us out of our endless slumber. We swallow and digest the findings of one international report after another, pointing out our flaws with regard to human rights, child mortality and malnutrition, and of course climate change. But as social scientists and the development community, we fail to get to the root causes and the core issues of our economy and society: growing regional inequalities linked to the main economic sector — agriculture; and our population size, movements, and population densities, especially the galloping unplanned, unregulated, unanticipated urbanisation.

Even now, we do not really seriously count our people leave alone where they have moved and when; in fact, we withhold census results out of vote avarice. We do not listen when our less fortunate compatriots scream for water, food, livelihoods, and even commit suicide in despair; instead, we are preoccupied with international events.

Alas, beware the ghost of Malthus is lurking, with nasty predictions of food shortages and famines.

The writer is country director, Population Council, Islamabad.

Published in Dawn, January 18th, 2020