The critical environmental and sustainability issues of Pakistan:
1. Water crisis
According to a recent report by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Pakistan ranks third in the world among countries facing acute water shortage. Reports by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources (PCRWR) also warn the authorities that the South Asian country will reach absolute water scarcity by 2025. In 2016, PCRWR reported that Pakistan touched the “water stress line” in 1990 and crossed the “water scarcity line” in 2005. If this situation persists, Pakistan is likely to face an acute water shortage or a drought-like situation in the near future. Pakistan has the world’s fourth-highest rate of water use. Its water intensity rate — the amount of water, in cubic meters, used per unit of GDP — is the world’s highest. This suggests that no country’s economy is more water-intensive than Pakistan’s.
According to the IMF, Pakistan’s per capita annual water availability is 1,017 cubic meters — perilously close to the scarcity threshold of 1,000 cubic meters. Back in 2009, Pakistan’s water availability was about 1,500 cubic meters.
The bulk of Pakistan’s farmland is irrigated through a canal system, but canal water is vastly underpriced, recovering only a quarter of annual operating and maintenance costs. Meanwhile, agriculture, which consumes almost all annual available surface water, is largely untaxed.
Population growth and urbanization are the main reasons behind the crisis. The issue has also been exacerbated by climate change, poor water management and a lack of political will to deal with the crisis.
“Pakistan is approaching the scarcity threshold for water. What is even more disturbing is that groundwater supplies — the last resort of water supply — are being rapidly depleted. And worst of all is that the authorities have given no indication that they plan to do anything about any of this.
2. Poor housing quality and affordability
The State Bank of Pakistan has estimated that across all major cities, urban housing was approximately 4.4 million units short of demand in 2015. If current trends continue, Pakistan’s five largest cities will account for 78 percent of the total housing shortage by 2035. Even if urban population remains stagnant, the growing trend of nuclear families who seek housing separate from larger families will increase pressure on housing supply. When provided, housing is often low quality. Pakistan ranks eighth among the ten countries that collectively hold 60 percent of substandard housing across the world. Karachi, one of the world’s fastest growing megacities with an estimated 17 million people, ranks second lowest in South Asia and sixth lowest in the world on the Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2015 livability index.
Karachi is the only megacity in the world without a mass public transport system. Meanwhile, the cost of private transportation is estimated to have increased by over 100 percent since 2000. Those who cannot afford the commute are forced to live in unplanned, inner-city neighborhoods. Increased private transport on urban roads has caused severe congestion. The government has responded by upgrading many urban roads. However, infrastructure for the most common modes of travel in Pakistan – such as pavements for walking or special lanes for bicycles – either does not exist or has been encroached upon. This is despite the fact that 40 percent of all trips in Lahore are made on foot. Mobility in urban Pakistan is also harder for women. An ADB study found that almost 85 percent of working-women surveyed in Karachi were harassed in 2015.
While overall health and nutrition are better for urban than for rural populations, child mortality and malnutrition indicators show that Pakistan’s urban poor have health outcomes only marginally better than the rural poor.
Better health outcomes in urban areas are explained by improved access to private health care in cities. But with the exception of immunization, utilization of basic public health services is very low in urban areas.
Poor health outcomes are also a direct impact of the pollution caused by rapid urbanization. According to the World Health Organization, Karachi is the most polluted city in Pakistan with air twice as polluted as that of Beijing. The level of pollution in Punjab’s major cities is also three to four times higher than that determined safe by the UN.
A lack of clean drinking water remains a major contributor to the high mortality rate of children under five years old. According to Save the Children’s 2015 Annual Report, poor urban children in Pakistan are more likely to die young than rural children.
The challenge of global warming has also intensified in cities. A rise in concrete structures across the urban landscape is increasing temperatures within cities. In 2015, an unanticipated heat wave in Karachi led to almost 1,500 deaths.
Pakistan was described as “among the world’s worst performing countries in education,” at the 2015 Oslo Summit on Education and Development. The new government, elected in July 2018, stated in their manifesto that nearly 22.5 million children are out of school. Girls are particularly affected. Thirty-two percent of primary school age girls are out of school in Pakistan, compared to 21 percent of boys. By grade six, 59 percent of girls are out of school, versus 49 percent of boys. Only 13 percent of girls are still in school by ninth grade. Both boys and girls are missing out on education in unacceptable numbers, but girls are worst affected
There are high numbers of out-of-school children, and significant gender disparities in education, across the entire country, but some areas are much worse than others. In Balochistan, the province with the lowest percentage of educated women, as of 2014-15, 81 percent of women had not completed primary school, compared to 52 percent of men. Seventy-five percent of women had never attended school at all, compared to 40 percent of men. According to this data, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa had higher rates of education but similarly huge gender disparities. Sindh and Punjab had higher rates of education and somewhat lower gender disparities, but the gender disparities were still 14 to 21 percent.
Although urban areas have higher student enrollment and better learning outcomes, close to 10 percent of all children in Lahore, Karachi and Peshawar remain out of school.
Lack of access to education for girls is part of a broader landscape of gender inequality in Pakistan. The country has one of Asia’s highest rates of maternal mortality. Violence against women and girls—including rape, so-called “honor” killings and violence, acid attacks, domestic violence, forced marriage and child marriage—is a serious problem, and government responses are inadequate. Pakistani activists estimate that there are about 1,000 honor killings every year. Twenty-one percent of females marry as children.
Like healthcare, better education in cities is explained by the private sector. From 2001 to 2014, the share of primary enrollment in urban private schools rose from 25 percent to 40 percent.
Moreover, there seems to be an inverse relationship between public schooling and city size. In small cities, approximately 35 percent of all children aged five to nine are enrolled in government schools. In capital cities, that figure drops to 22 percent.
Continued preference for private schools reflects the low quality of government schools in urban centers. While all private schools have basic facilities (drinkable water and toilets), they are missing in around 12 percent of government schools in Lahore.
The absence of educational and health facilities in smaller cities pushes people towards big cities, where service delivery becomes increasingly strained as the urban population grows.