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PAKISTAN: Uncontrolled Population Blamed for Climate Change

Zofeen Ebrahim

KARACHI, Jul 31 2007 (IPS) - When it comes to climate change population matters, particularly for countries in South Asia, Africa and some Arab countries, says Prof. Khalid Rashid. A mathematician and physicist in Pakistan, he has long been studying the phenomenon of global warming and views the uncontrolled population explosion with much trepidation.

But there are climate scientists like Dr Shaheen Rafi Khan, a researcher with an Islamabad-based policy-oriented research institute, the Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI), who insist it is how we live and use resources that matters not the number of people.

"Because," insists Dr Khan, "the focus remains on emissions in the North and adaptation to climate change in the South. The South is the victim of climate change not the agent."

He however, adds: "Population growth impact is likely to be incremental and the country that will contribute substantively to it will be India, with its large and growing population and surging economic growth."

As people struggle to survive in poor countries, environmental degradation is more pervasive. Long-term sustainable development goals are disregarded in favour of immediate subsistence needs. Increased use of wood for fuel, abusive use of land and water resources, in the form of overgrazing, over fishing, depletion of fresh water and desertification – are common in poor countries.

In Asia, in particular, another cause for concern is the rapid industrialisation of India and China. This means fossil fuel consumption has increased.

"Deep down human population is the main cause. If the world population would stay around 100 million, this population could afford an energy-intensive, yet sustainable, lifestyle. The effect on the planet would be small," says Prof. Rashid.

The mathematician in him begins calculating. "It is very obvious that by 2050, the Indian subcontinent will have to support 350 million Pakistanis; 1.65 billion Indians; 40 million Nepalese; 300 million Bangladeshis and 30 million Sri Lankans. The total will be about 2.4 billion people. This was the total population of the whole earth around 1950. The strain on resources will be tremendous, and consequences catastrophic," he prophesies.

By then the glaciers in the Himalayas will be gone, the monsoons will be erratic, sometimes too much or too little rain; new uncontrollable diseases will have emerged, he adds. "We are headed for a mega disaster. It will come overnight. We will wake up, and find that all we had yesterday (food, water, electricity) are gone," the professor concludes.

The world&#39s population is projected to increase by 40 percent in 2050. Pakistan, with an annual growth rate of 2.69 percent, as given in the government&#39s Statistical Year Book 2006, will be the sixth most populous country.

There seems to be no stopping the runaway growth here because birth control is often portrayed as anti-people. The subject is not broached. The country&#39s political and religious leaders who could make a difference are to blame.

"They have ignored the explosive population growth completely. Birth control is a taboo topic. In our culture, the larger the number of children, the stronger the family feels. Poverty does not seem to matter," says Dr Rashid. "The mullahs (clerics) may not like it!" adds Dr Khan.

The rural population has been kept illiterate in Pakistan, he declares. "Instead of building schools we built armies. The feudal landowners saw to it that the rural population is kept away from schooling. Many of the Ulema declare girls&#39 education to be un-Islamic," Dr Rashid explains.

The reality is that even where women want fewer children or practice birth spacing they face difficulty in accessing the family planning services. They meet with a non-supportive environment at home, and encounter misconceptions and misinformation about the use of family planning.

In addition, Pakistan has a very young population with an extremely high fertility – much higher, for instance, than Bangladesh or Thailand. This young population will soon become adults and come into the reproductive age. And even if there is a decline in average fertility to the reproductive level (of 2.1 children per woman) by 2020, Pakistan will still have a population of 350 million by 2050, according to the UN medium variant projection.

Khan appeals to Pakistan&#39s leaders to tackle the population growth issue, also "because of its climate change implications. Urban emissions pose huge health hazards in southern cities. They are directly related to burgeoning urban populations thanks to high fertility and rural-urban drift."

Unfortunately green lobbyists everywhere have shied away from the issue, according to Khan. They are more concerned about the impact on biodiversity, he points out.

Dr R.K. Pachauri, chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), while agreeing that a larger population will cause greater emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs) which causes climate change, feels a still more important question is: "how population encroaches on biodiversity resources?"

Dr Kashif M. Sheikh, a biodiversity specialist, concludes: "Exponential human growth is the greatest challenge not only to biodiversity but sustaining and conserving biodiversity in all its lives and forms."

Dr Khan, however does not subscribe to the theory that massive growth in population has had more impact on biodiversity than any other single factor. "No, recent research shows a tenuous population-poverty-degradation nexus. The problem lies in management and giving people their resource rights," he insists.

(*Corrects quotation attributions in paragraphs 12 and 13.)

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