Is Pakistan running out of physical space?

By Kazim Alam

A storm of self-congratulatory tweets brought to our attention a pleasant surprise a couple of months back: Pakistan is set to become the 16th largest economy by 2050, according to a report by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), one of the world’s biggest consulting firms.

Using values from past data to derive future estimates is called extrapolation. Extrapolation lies at the centre of economic planning. But it can also be misleading for a simple reason. It involves the risk of overemphasising some variables while ignoring others.

Now what’s wrong with the PwC estimate about Pakistan’s economic size in 2050? It gives us a false satisfaction that we’re destined to be a major global economic player 30-odd years down the road. What the report completely ignores is the heavy toll that simultaneous growth in the country’s population will take on the economy and living standards.

In an article for Dawn, noted public intellectual Pervez Hoodbhoy says that Pakistan’s population is growing exponentially. This means that instead of growing at an arithmetic rate (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7…), the rise in population is at a geometric rate (1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64…).

“In 1947 [Pakistan] had 27 million people and now has over 200m. This gives a doubling time of roughly 25 years. Now assume for a moment that the ultras have their way and the doubling time stays unchanged. Then 25 years later there will be 400m Pakistani CNIC holders. Wait for another 100 years and that number will comfortably exceed the world’s current population of 7.2 billion.”

Just like PwC, Hoodbhoy is also extrapolating data. But Hoodbhoy’s extrapolation has the potential to toss aside the extrapolation of PwC by rendering its whole feel-good exercise meaningless. What good will becoming the 16th largest economy bring to Pakistanis if they literally run out of physical space in the coming decades?

“Short of nuclear war or a miracle, nothing can now prevent Pakistan from reaching 400m people in 35-40 years. Hence the demand for living space will vastly accelerate. Even now, green areas are vanishing as villages become towns, and one city spills over into the next. Karachi and Hyderabad are approaching their eventual merger, just as Islamabad and Rawalpindi have become practically one city, and Islamabad is furiously racing towards Taxila.”

What standard of living will the citizens of the 16th largest economy will have in 2050 if “there will only be half as much fresh water as today, the air will become yet filthier, pollutants will poison the land and sea, and road traffic will become nearly impossible”?

If the situation is indeed as dire as Hoodbhoy suggests, then why is no one making a fuss about the oncoming Armageddon? Having talked to a number of people about the issue, I have reached the following conclusion:

  1. People don’t believe the dark forecast because they are optimistic that human ingenuity will overcome all big problems – like it always has.
  2. People believe every child is born with his rizq already promised by God.
  3. The human race has existed for millennia and the physical space has demonstrably not run out so far. Thus, the whole argument seems like a red herring to many people.

Some of the people familiar with western political ideas also referred to Thomas Malthus, the 19th century philosopher who painted a pessimistic picture of the future for the human race by pointing out that food production in Europe rose at an arithmetic rate while population grew at a geometric rate. Of course, few of Malthus’s predictions proved right: technological advancements have so far ensured sufficient food for everyone (in theory, at least).

But an outright rejection of Hoodbhoy’s argument by calling him a 21st-century Malthusian isn’t very intelligent. The Malthusian view of the world was turned upside down by the agricultural and industrial revolutions.

Plus, famine, disease and wars ensured a regular trimming of the world populations for hundreds of years.

But the latest data from around the world shows that child mortality is at a record low, the number of war-related deaths has rapidly come down from its average of half a century ago, diseases that would kill millions of children every year are disappearing and the world population is – by and large – healthier, more prosperous and living longer than its historical average.

As for technological advancement, I remain a staunch believer in human ingenuity. But should we bet the future of human race on our intuition alone? Optimism cannot undo hard facts. Pakistan already has two million people entering the job market every year. This means we need at least 7% GDP growth rate per annum – a far cry from the current growth rate of hardly 5%. Consider this in view of the prevailing housing shortage, water scarcity and streets teeming with undernourished and out-of-school children, you’ll realise Pakistan is a ticking bomb.

Next time you read a PwC report talking about the size of Pakistan’s economy 30 years down the road, take it with a sack of salt.

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