Pakistan’s infrastructural and environmental challenges

Pakistani infrastructure has generally failed to keep up with the exploding population of that country.

The population of the country increased from 111.1 million in 1990 to 176.2 million in 2011; at the same time the population of its biggest city, Karachi, more than doubled from 9.8 million to 21.2 million. Karachi’s infrastructure is creaking under the strain of overpopulation and gross mismanagement. Some  have even proposed limiting industrialization in the city to reduce the incentives for rural people to migrate, but this proposal would make things worse. Urbanization can often be a solution to rural poverty and underdevelopment as cities provide opportunities that would be unavailable in rural areas. Furthermore, the problems of overpopulation and lack of infrastructure are not limited to Karachi but exist throughout the country.

Compounding the problem of overpopulation, the country’s leaders have failed to invest in the physical infrastructure that could allow the country to function. For example, there are no functioning commuter trains in the country – the only one, the Karachi Circular Railway, stopped service in 1999, although there are plans to revive it. Pakistan Railways has crumbled since the country’s independence due to decades of neglect and corruption. Mass transit is of course far more energy efficient than road transport but for the denizens of Karachi it is an amenity that no longer exists.

Traffic jam at Sadder, one of the busiest commercial areas in Karachi. Photo: Akthar Soomro

Not surprisingly, climate change is compounding these stresses and causing new problems of its own. Pakistan ranks among the worst-hit nations by climate change due to water scarcity and floods. The country relies on the Indus River for irrigation, which is fed by glaciers in Tibet and the Himalayas. However, the melting of glaciers due to global warming, despite leading to short-term higher flows, will eventually lead to reduced flows outside of the monsoon season, compounding the water stress. Rampant deforestation – the country only retained between 2 and 5 percent of its original forest cover – leads to erosion and hits the soil’s ability to retain water, further compounding the problems of water scarcity and flooding. Among other causes, deforestation is caused by the failure of energy infrastructure – both the electric grid and gas delivery networks – has led Pakistanis to cut down trees for firewood to satisfy basic household needs like cooking and heating. Yet the country has no real policy to curb deforestation.

Between 1990 and 2010, Pakistan lost ~33% of its forest cover. Deforestation has been linked to floods that have misplaced rural population – Source: Nasseem Sheikh

Pakistan’s environmental and infrastructural challenges are immensely complex and interlinked, exacerbating each other. No single policy shift can solve them, but solutions do exist. The international community should help the Pakistani government maintain its physical infrastructure, as well as promote female education — apart from the obvious benefits to gender equity, female education also reduces population pressure because educated women generally have fewer children.

Deforestation could possibly be curbed by the country’s inclusion in REDD+, which is the UN’s financial mechanism to promote forest conservation as a means of reducing carbon emissions. The basic premise behind REDD+ is that rich donor countries will pay poor countries to conserve their forests, and the poor countries can earn revenue through carbon credits. Pakistan joined UN-REDD in 2011, and pilot projects have begun in the provinces of Gilgit-Baltistan and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa in the country’s north, where most of the remaining forest cover is located.

Although REDD provides a glimmer of hope, it remains to be seen how effective the program will be. For the most part, Pakistan’s infrastructural and environmental continue unabated.