The recent flooding in Pakistan that has killed an estimated 1500 people and left more than a million people homeless has nothing to do with population. Or does it?
The flooding, of course, has been caused by torrential rains, but deforestation is often a major contributor to flooding in the developing world. Such is almost certainly the case with respect to the North West Frontier (recently renamed Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa) Province, which is one of the most densely populated and fastest growing regions in Pakistan. Deforestation is a critical problem in many parts of Pakistan, but particularly in the NWFP, where subsistence farmers are heavily dependent upon trees for fuel and lumber. A 2006 report on deforestation in Pakistan found that:
Forest depletion is one of the most serious environmental issues for Pakistan. According to an estimate 39 thousand hectares of forests are vanishing annually. Between the years 1990 and 2000, the deforestation rate in Pakistan was 1.5% annually (FAO, 2005). Studies based on remote sensing show that the rates of decline in forest cover in NWFP will lead to a complete disappearance of the forest from most areas within 30 years.
The report, which focused on the NWFP, noted that:
The winter season is very harsh with heavy snowfall and the people have no other option except to use forest wood for cooking and heating purpose. With the average household size of more than 9 persons the demand for firewood and fuel wood is increasing rapidly thereby adding enormous pressure on already degraded forests.
The region’s population, which has grown from 11 million in 1981 to an estimated 21 million today (not counting an estimated 1.5 million Afghan refugees), is largely rural and heavily dependent on agriculture, but the urban population is now rapidly growing as people are finding it more difficult to survive off the land.
Five weeks ago, population growth was apparently the subject of intense debate in the region’s legislative assembly. According to a news report, PML-N member Javed Abbasi said that rapid population was the root cause of the prevailing social and economic problems being faced by Pakistan. Mufti Kifayatullah, a member of the rival MMA party, reportedly dismissed that assertion saying that, “The more children are born, the more Mujahid (jihadists) would be there.”
You don’t have to be worried about jihadists to be concerned about a desperately poor region that is suffering yet another humanitarian disaster. Emergency aid will help to limit the suffering from this disaster, but unless more is done to expand family planning services in this region and elsewhere in Pakistan, the death toll from natural disasters like this one will only rise in the decades ahead.
Fortunately, Pakistan’s new federal government is strongly committed to expanding family planning services and information, but whether it will be successful in regions like this one remains to be seen.
Posted by Robert J. Walker, Executive Vice President