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Challenges arising as a result of exploding population

Out of the five challenges that the incumbent government will have to face after elections, population growth is the biggest, with extremism, economy, water shortages and civil/military relationship being the other four. Pakistan, with its limited family planning, has one of the highest birth rates in Asia at around three children per woman, according to the World Bank and government figures. That has led to a fivefold increase of the population since 1960, now touching 207.7 million. The boom is negating hard-won economic and social progress in the developing country. Analysts say unless more is done to slow growth, the country’s natural resources — particularly drinking water — will not be enough to support the population.

Water shortage and distribution system

There are various myths surrounding water shortage in Pakistan some of which are discussed below:

Myth No. 1: The problem of water security is often presented as one of water scarcity.

Reality: Pakistan is a water-rich country as only 35 countries have more renewable water. It is true that measured for each person, Pakistan is approaching a widely recognized scarcity level of 1000 cubic meters each year. Pakistan needs to shift its focus from scarcity to managing water demand and producing more from each drop of water. It needs to make water allocation more efficient and fair, and offer incentives that reflect how scarce water is to encourage wise use.

Myth No.2: Pakistan lacks reservoir storage despite having significant storage in the form of glaciers, an asset most countries lack.

Reality: The main issue is flow variability and not of “storage volume per person” or “average days of water demand”. Thus, Pakistan has little need for reservoir storage from one year to the next, although some storage is needed to capture the monsoon peak and release this water later in the Kharif season and in the early Rabi season. Additional storage would certainly yield additional useable water, but any increase in water use will inevitably reduce the flow to the sea, which is already at an environmentally unsustainable low level.

Myth No. 3: There is concern over the loss of the Indus basin glaciers.

Reality: The Indus has a greater share of glacial ice at higher elevation than other Himalayan basins, and although faster rates of warming are expected higher up, the absolute temperatures projected would not be enough to drive rapid melting there.

Myth No.4: Irrigation is commonly believed to be highly inefficient in the Indus leading to a common belief that much water could be “saved” by capturing “losses”.

Reality: The big “losses” are drainage returns to the river and seepage to groundwater, both of which are then used through diversion downstream or through groundwater pumping. The problems in irrigation are more to do with inefficient and unfair distribution of the water, and low productivity in terms of the yield and value of crops a unit of water used.

Myth No.5: The flows to the sea are commonly seen as wastage.

Reality: Average flow to the sea has been falling for more than 80 years. Firstly, the eastern rivers were diverted to India and then storages were constructed in Pakistan. Average annual flow to the sea has been reduced by more than 80 percent. There is strong evidence that declining flows as well as pollution is contributing to the declining health of the lower river and delta and undermining the valuable services these ecosystems provide including fisheries and coastal protection.


Food and agriculture system

Feeding an ever-growing population in the country means harnessing the food and agriculture system more effectively towards sustainable agriculture development imperatives. Agricultural development cannot be called sustainable unless it improves Food Security and Nutrition (FSN). Agriculture and agricultural systems of Pakistan are continuously evolving and adjusting to meet the increasing demand for food and changes in nutrition and diet habits. Pakistan’s agriculture has a potential to grow at the rate of 7 percent, provided that a comprehensive programme for the development of all the sub-sectors is implemented.

Pakistan has one of the world’s most impressive agricultural systems but it has not used it well. Agriculture sector is still the dominant sector of the economy with profound impact on rural economy. Its forward and backward linkages particularly with the industrial sector, gives it central place as a useful tool for the economic development of Pakistan. In face of increasing population growth especially in developing countries, limited possibilities of further extension of cultivated land, increasing resource degradation and wide gap between potential and national average yield, productivity growth takes an important place to face the challenges of the future to combat against food insecurity.

Pakistan has made significant progress in food production over the last several decades. However, food security is still a key challenge due to high population growth, rapid urbanization, low purchasing power, high price fluctuations, erratic food production, and inefficient food distribution systems. According to the Food Security Assessment Survey (FSA), 2016, 18 percent of the population in Pakistan is undernourished. Food insecurity in Pakistan is primarily attributable to the limited economic access of the poorest and most vulnerable to food.

Pakistan is a highly diversified country, having 12 agro-ecological zones, where more than 35 types of crop and livestock mixed farming systems are practiced. Policies of the successive governments to achieve self-sufficiency in food grains (wheat and rice) and sugar have been implemented successfully. As a result, surpluses in wheat, rice and sugar are produced in the country since the last six years. The high cost of production, the large international stock build-ups and reduced international prices make it almost impossible for Pakistani farmers to compete in the international markets. With the foregoing in view, Pakistan should take measures to introduce changes in its production systems. For instance, area under rice and sugarcane crops will have to be reduced for the cultivation of other high value crops, such as oilseed, pulses, soybean, horticulture crops and fodder.

The writer is a Karachi based freelance columnist and is a banker by profession. He could be reached on Twitter @ReluctantAhsan

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