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Pakistani girls carry food back to their tents after a food handout at the Jalala  refugee camp near Mardan, in northwest Pakistan, Friday, May 15, 2009.  – File photo by AP
Pakistani girls carry food back to their tents after a food handout at the Jalala refugee camp near Mardan, in northwest Pakistan, Friday, May 15, 2009. – File photo by AP

The approximate population of Pakistan stands at 185 million, according to most official estimates. Considering the challenge of collecting accurate data, it is safe to assume that in reality the figure is closer to 200 million. The country boasts the sixth-largest population in the world and carries the distinction of having one of the highest fertility and birth rates.

According to UN projections, if fertility rates remain constant, Pakistan’s population will jump to 261 million by 2030 and nearly 380 million by 2050. Given past trends, hoping for a decline in fertility and birth rates would be unrealistic – in fact the country would be lucky if rates remain stable and do not actually increase.

It is often challenging to grasp the significance of statistics when dealing with population issues. Considering that the current population of Pakistan is around 185 million, think about the state of affairs in the country. Crippling blackouts, dwindling water supplies, and natural gas shortages plague most parts of the country – both urban and rural.

Now plug in 261 million or 380 million people to the above scenario and factor in that successive governments have made virtually no serious effort to address rapidly dwindling resources. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that if Pakistan continues on this trajectory, the country will face a devastating scarcity of resources within two decades, the effects of which are already being felt by most of the population.

It is true that many of Pakistan’s resource problems stem from poor planning and blatant mismanagement. Exploiting new resources, repairing/maintaining existing infrastructure, and smart allocation plans can reduce many shortfalls. However, even if this could be achieved – the dismal track-record of previous governments strongly suggests otherwise – the exploding population will continue to strain the country’s finite resources at levels which are simply unsustainable.

A closer look at one vital resource in particular highlights the severity of the problem. A country is designated water-scarce when annual availability dips below 1,000 cubic meters per capita. In Pakistan, water availability dropped from 5,000 cubic meters per capita in the 1950s to current levels of under 1,500 cubic meters. Furthermore, the annual water demand is expected to exceed availability by 100 billion cubic meters by 2025, if not earlier. This shortfall alone far surpasses present supply and storage capacity. In a nutshell, Pakistan will likely be a water-scarce nation within a decade.

Closely tied to dwindling water supplies is the rapid loss of agricultural land. Pakistan loses thousands of acres of fertile land every year due to poor farming, irrigation, and drainage practices. This naturally places great strain on remaining land resources and threatens food security. Considering that 90 per cent of the country’s water is used for agricultural purposes – leaving precious little for drinking, sanitation, and industrial use – Pakistan’s resource dilemma further intensifies since two of its most vital resources are being depleted at alarming rates.

Today, Pakistan faces a host of serious problems ranging from terrorism to economic collapse. Given the tumultuous history of the country and the seemingly endless string of crises, it is easy to understand why most Pakistanis remain focussed on the present and overlook long-term challenges facing the country. Yet, if drastic measures are not taken to address the population boom and resource depletion, the future looks very bleak indeed.

Wasif Khan is a former staff member, now based in Washington, DC.