The Population Bomb

Spearhead Analysis – 02.02.2018

By Farrukh Karamat
Senior Research Coordinator, Spearhead Research

Pakistan as a region has a rich history dating back almost 2,500 years B.C., when it was considered to be one of the most advanced and developed civilizations of the times. When it became a sovereign state on August 14, 1947, it had a population of around 35 Million, which has been steadily creeping up over the years and placing increased socio-economic pressures on the meagre resources of the country and hampering economic growth.

From being the 14th most populous country in the 1950s, today, it is classified as the 6th most populous country in the World. As per data from the 6th Census, the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics (PBS) has declared that the country’s population has increased by 57 per cent (excluding Azad Kashmir, and Gilgit-Baltistan) in the last 19 years, and stands at 207.774 Million as compared to 132.362 Million in 1998. And if one were to go by global expert projections, by the year 2050, when planet Earth will have a population of close to 9 Billion, around 310 Million or 3.5 per cent will be located in Pakistan.


The incessant rise in population over the years in the absence of improvement in key socio-economic indicators is continuing to place pressures on the economy and leading to under-funding and under-development of the human capital within the country. This adverse trend will have far-reaching implications in the future as it would become increasingly difficult to support a growing population that is ill-equipped to contribute to meaningful economic development. The fact that policies in the population control sphere have a long gestation period, makes it imperative that the government act now to reap the benefits next decade onwards.


Pakistan has a relatively young population with almost 53 per cent below the age of 25 years. The median age of the population is below 24 years. This places peculiar demands on the economy in terms of being able to generate viable and gainful employment opportunities for the people. Given the low level of industrialization, and high dependence on imports Pakistan is leaning more towards becoming a service economy, which does not have the capacity to absorb the growing labour force. This has the potential of leading to social unrest within the country. The fact that the education and health budgets are below 3 per cent of GDP is an alarming indicator, as these are woefully inadequate to meet the demands in terms of providing the required skill set, education, and basic health facilities to the population. 


Source: CIA World Factbook
  • Male population is 51.24 per cent, and stands at 106.449 Million.
  • Female population is 48.76 per cent of the total at 101.314 Million.

Population Density

Population density (people per sq. km) in Pakistan was reported at 251 sq. Km in 2016, according to the World Bank and has risen from a density of 50 sq. Km in the 1950s. This is almost a five-fold increase over the last seven decades, while urbanisation has increased from 32.52 per cent in 1998 to 36.38 per cent in 2017.

The congested roads; the high density residential developments; the stressed resources such as water, electricity, and gas; and, the rising dependence on imports even for basic food items is evidence of a country under stress from population growth. The failure of successive governments to institute reforms for sustainable economic growth while harnessing the population has served to create a Population Time Bomb, ticking away in the background.

It is a population that is ill-equipped to contribute to the growth of the economy, and is starting to become a burden on the already fragile economic resources. Lack of planned social sector reforms have led to low levels of ‘real’ literacy rates, inadequate health care provision, and woefully inept management of water and sanitation facilities. As a result, there is a severe lack of skilled and professional labour, high incidence of stunted growth in children, and contamination of the food and water chains leading to multiple health-related issues. The fact that the country is classified as 147th out of 188 on the Human Development Index (HDI), is alarming to say the least.

The rampant conversion of agricultural lands on the outskirts of cities into mega-residential projects s serving to increase the urban density and in many cases is leading to pressures through unplanned urban development. The lack of development and upgradation of the existing infrastructure in the cites in placing acute pressures on an archaic system in terms of provision of utilities and sanitation facilities.


Pakistan has one of the highest population growth rates and densities in the global context, with a young population base. Unless the government can institute measures to control the growth rate in population and the resultant urbanization, it would become increasingly difficult in the future to have sustainable communities. The land and other resources are limited and encroachment by the population erodes the productivity from these resources.


Out of 137 countries ranked in the Global Competitiveness Report 2017-18 compared with its regional peers, Pakistan ranked at the bottom. Among the six surveyed nations, India was at top on 40th position, Bhutan was at 82nd position, Sri Lanka 85th, Nepal 88th and Bangladesh 99th. Pakistan ranked 115th overall and in terms of specific metrics it ranked:

  • 128th on Labour Market Efficiency.
  • 129th on Health and Primary Education.
  • 123rd on Higher Education and Training.
  • 107th on Goods Market Efficiency.
  • 107th on Financial Market Sophistication.
  • 111th on Technological Readiness.

In terms of state institutions Pakistan again ranked at the bottom:

  • Trade Development Authority of Pakistan 135th.
  • Higher Education Commission of Pakistan 116th
  • Police Services 116th,
  • National Electric Power Regulatory Authority 115th
  • Auditor General of Pakistan 110th.
  • Intellectual Property Organization 97th,
  • Judiciary 80th,
  • National Highways Authority 76th,
  • Civil Aviation Authority 91st
  • National Vocational and Technical Training Commission 99th,
  • Competition Commission of Pakistan 70th,
  • Pakistan Customs 93rd,
  • State Bank of Pakistan at 89th
  • Securities and Exchange Commission of Pakistan at 91st.

With such dismal rankings for key competitive indicators it is no wonder that the country has been classified in the worst category on the Global Competitive Index.


Source: Global Competitiveness Report 2017-18

With a population base that has crossed 200 Million it is imperative to improve on the competitiveness in terms of education and skill development. Unfortunately, with low spending levels within the human and social development spheres, Pakistan continues to lag with an increasing gap with peer countries. CPEC provides the opportunity to lift the development levels, however, it depends on whether the government can capitalize on the opportunities or not.

Water & Sanitation

The growing population is placing increasing demands on an already stressed system. Over the past six decades the per capita water resources have decreased from 5,300 cubic meters to around 1,000 cubic meters in Pakistan. The country is already being classified as water stressed and is projected to become water scarce by 2025, reaching a level of just 500 cubic meters per capita. Pakistan is also one of the top ten countries worst effected by climate change and remains highly vulnerable to the climatic shift patterns. This is exacerbated by a rapidly growing population, water scarcity, and the unplanned and uncontrolled urbanization. There are major financing challenges arising from natural catastrophes with annual flooding alone causing an estimated annual economic impact of 3-4 per cent of the Federal Budget. The high costs involved and the potential of water scarcity could severely hamper efforts for enhancing productivity and economic growth.

Inadequate provision of drinking water, contamination of the food and water chain, inadequate sanitation, lack of treatment plants and garbage recycling are issues that are not being mainstreamed. The rising population and rates of urabization are matters that need to be tackled to contain the situation before it becomes untenable. Karachi is an example of a city that has turned into a garbage heap, with no water and splitting at the seams as a result of the infrastructure and facilities not keeping pace with the population growth. Building overhead roads and underpasses to avoid the congested areas are not solutions. The need is for containing the population growth to manage the density and urbanization, to be better able to provide facilities to the people. 


It is not just the inability of the State to provide education for all, but there is a woefully inept and inadequate educational curriculum that has been unable to keep pace with the global standards and has failed to create an environment for meaningful education at the primary level. The result is an ill-educated and illiterate growing segment of population with little prospects for improvement. Pakistan primary school enrolment ranks 115th out of 129 counties as per UNESCO. None of the higher education institutions in Pakistan are even near the Top 500 rank. These are dismal numbers for a young and rapidly growing population as it is contributing towards creating an ill-equipped labour force that would not be able to compete effectively in a global context.


The healthcare sector is lagging with spending less than 3 per cent of GDP. There are 0.81 physicians for every 1000 people and 0.6 beds for every 1000 patients in hospitals. Grossly inadequate by any standard. The high incidence of diseases such as Dengue, Malaria, HIV, Hepatitis and the increasing risk from stunted growth of children are risks that are placing financial burdens on the economy and severely hampering developmental efforts. With the rising level of population there are over-burdened hospitals, inadequate facilities and shortages of basic medicines.

Agricultural production

Pakistan ranks eighth in the world in terms of farm output. It is one of the world’s largest producers and suppliers of food and crops: chickpea (3rd), apricot (6th), cotton, rice and mango (4th), milk sugarcane and date palm (5th), kinnow or citrus (6th), and wheat and onion (7th). However, the share of agriculture in gross domestic product (GDP) has declined since independence, falling from 53 per cent in 1949-50 to 19.8 per cent in 2016-17. Policymakers’ apathy, poor institutional framework, unpredictable official policies, undue pressure by donor agencies and privatisation are cited as major reasons behind the current situation. At the same time the food imports into the country have continued to witness an increase, placing severe pressure on the already fragile forex reserves of the country.

The increased urbanization due to the rising population is leading to conversion of agricultural land into residential developments reducing the cultivable area and a decline in food production. In addition, lack of technological advancements in the sector coupled with the falling water levels are reducing yields. Pakistan needs to feed the growing population and unless sustainable efforts are undertaken to address the situation and contain the import dependence food security could become a reality and a major issue in the future.


It is not a question of when, but a question of how to diffuse the population bomb. There needs to be an active debate, rational policy-making, and provision adequate funding for improving the socio-economic well-being of the people, while instituting strict population control measures. In the absence of such concerted efforts there are chances of large segments of the population being marginalized leading to social unrest and serious repercussions within the economy.