Pakistan’s population in the global context

Pakistan toady has a population of 221 million, almost seven times its size in 1947

Shahid Javed Burki December 05, 2022
The writer is a former caretaker finance minister and served as vice-president at the World Bank


Pakistan toady has a population of 221 million. It is almost seven times the size when what is now Pakistan came into existence. The partition of the British colony in 1947 into Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan brought about a significant transfer of populations between the two countries. Eight million Muslims moved into what is Pakistan today while six million Hindus and Sikhs moved in the opposite direction. This was a significant demographic convulsion. It was population exchange of historic proportions involving 14 million people. When the population finally settled in the western wing of the original Pakistan, what is Pakistan toady had a population of 32 million of which one-quarter were migrants from India. As I will note later in this article, this was not the only large-scale international migration that was to define Pakistan’s demographic situation. Given these changes how does Pakistan’s population fit into global demographic change?

On Tuesday, November 15, 2022, the world population crossed the 8 billion mark. The announcement was made by the United Nations. This threshold was reached earlier than expected even though there was a perceptible decline in the birth rate, especially in the more developed countries. UN officials said the crossing of the milestone was an indicator of mankind’s achievements in medicine, nutrition, public health and personal hygiene. The world population has grown rapidly since 1900 largely because of soaring birthrates in some parts of the world and healthcare advancements. The 8 billion milestone was reached sooner than the UN once predicted. The organisation had once projected in 1999 that the world would hit the 8-billion mark in 2028.

There were about 300 million people on planet Earth two thousand years ago. The population fluctuated in the centuries after that largely because of plagues and natural disasters. Then the rate of increase accelerated, reaching one billion in 1804, four billion in 1974 and seven billion in 2011. Globally life expectancy reached 72.8 years in 2019, an increase of almost nine years since 1990, though it fell to 71 years in 2021 because of the Covid-19 death toll. Demographers predict the world will reach nine billion around 2037 but will peak at around 10.4 billion during the 2080s and remain at that level until the start of the next century. Another forecast — this one by the Wittgenstein Center for Demography and Global Human Capital — has the world population peaking at 9.67 billion in 2070, before a slow decline in fertility rates drop.

Birth rates have fallen dramatically in most developed countries, but they remain high in many poorer countries which are least equipped to manage the impact of continued growth. In 2021, Japan saw its lowest number of births in over a century. Nearly 30% of its population is now 65 years or older. An older population is “less likely to set up businesses, and more reliant on the state”, said Paul Morland, a demographer and author of the book, The Human Tide: How Population Shaped the Modern World. While North America and Western Europe have made some adjustments in the age profiles of their population by admitting millions of migrants, Japan has kept itself close to foreigners. It will pay a heavy price for this demographic stance. The economy would stagnate and the level of productivity would stall. Germany, on the other hand, showed the benefits of large immigration. According to OECD that studied the consequence of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to admit a million Syrian refugees into her country in the early 2020s, there was an immediate positive impact of the policy. In 2021, the organisation estimated that new workers that came into the country added 0.3% rate of growth to the German GDP. Over the medium term, the contribution would increase to 0.5%.

By 2050, world population will increase by another 1.7 billion. Half of that increase will occur in just eight countries: Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines, Tanzania and India. Pakistan, according to these estimates, is the fifth most rapidly growing country in the world. Its population has increased almost seven-fold since it gained independence 75 years ago. The large population is subject to the effects of global warming. The rain and floods in the summer of 2022 killed an estimated 1,300 people since good parts of the country in the lower reaches of the Indus River were flooded. But Pakistan was not alone in feeling the impact of global warming. India also suffered from a deadly, unbearable heat in the summer of 2022. The country has a population of 1.4 billion and is set to pass China before the end of 2022 and become the world’s most populous country.

The increase in population over the next 60 years has renewed longstanding questions over how many people a warming planet can support. The 18th century demographer and economist Thomas Malthus predicted that the rate of population growth would outpace the world’s capacity to grow food. He predicted widespread famines in Africa and Asia. However, Malthus did not expect productivity increases that came to be known as green revolution. Pakistan was one of the countries where this revolution took hold and brought about impressive increases in the output of wheat and rice. “There are enough resources to feed the population today,” said Venessa Perez-Cierra, director of the Global Economic Center at the World Resources Institute. “But it’s just not evenly distributed. According to the World Food Program, some 828 million people — more than 10% of the world’s population — go to bed hungry.

Global warming would add another dimension to the pressure a growing population would put on the world’s resources. More than 75% of the planet’s ice-free land has been significantly altered by people, according to a 2020 report prepared by the Worldlife Fund. An estimated two-thirds of mammals, fish reptiles and amphibians have been lost in the last approximately 50 years. The parts of the globe that would go under water because of rising sea levels or would be too hot for human existence would lead to millions of people to migrate. Much of this will happen in South Asia.

Large migrations have occurred in the past. Millions of people moved from the crowded continent of Europe and occupied empty spaces in North America, Australia and New Zealand. America’s 330 million people, Canada’s almost 40 million and Australia’s and New Zealand’s 32 million trace their origin to the Europeans migrants.

Pakistan is one of the countries deeply impacted by international immigration. As already indicated, 8 million people came into the country from India in the summer of 1947 in a period of a few months. While no firm estimates are available, some five million Afghans have moved into Pakistan over the last half century to escape the turmoil in their country. Pakistanis have also left their country to find better economic opportunities abroad. There are about 6 million people of Pakistani origin in the oil-producing countries in the Middle East and about a million and a half in Britain, North America and Australia-New Zealand. This out-migration has had profound demographic and economic consequences for Pakistan.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 5th, 2022.

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