Project on Environment, Population & Security, April 1996
by Peter Gizewski and Thomas Homer-Dixon

This paper examines the contribution of environmental scarcity to violent conflict in Pakistan. It argues that scarcity is never the sole cause of Pakistan’s social conflict. Nevertheless, evidence indicates that the country’s varied and worsening environmental scarcities interact with the structure and operation of the Pakistani state to trigger processes that heighten ethnic, communal, and class-based rivalries. This combination of forces encourages resource capture, the marginalization of the poor, rising economic hardship, and a progressive weakening of the state. These processes, in turn, culminate in increased group-identity (for example, inter ethnic) and deprivation conflicts, particularly in the country’s urban areas.

Rapid population growth and degradation of a nation’s environmental resources may impair its economy, disrupt its social relations, and destabilize its political system. These stresses can cause civil or even international strife. Today, such conflicts appear likely in certain parts of the developing world where growing populations with rising expectations struggle to sustain themselves on a dwindling resource base.

Some commentators view the Islamic Republic of Pakistan as increasingly vulnerable to environmentally-induced conflict. They argue that with a population growth rate that ranks among the highest in the world, a declining resource base, and growing evidence of societal strife, environmental and demographic stresses are already destabilizing Pakistan.

However, there has been no adequate investigation of whether and how population growth and scarcities of renewable resources, such as cropland, forests, and freshwater (which we refer to here as “environmental scarcities”), contribute to the intensity and extent of violence within Pakistan. In general, commentators assert rather than demonstrate causation; they ignore other variables – some long associated with the onset or perpetuation of conflict in the country – and they do not specify the precise causal processes by which scarcity produces violence.

Identifying these linkages is a daunting task in part because of severe data limitations. Nevertheless, a systematic investigation of the nature and sources of environmental scarcity and of its societal effects in Pakistan yields important insights.

This paper first examines the character of the Pakistani state, its political and economic development, and the tensions which have historically marked Pakistani society. It then turns to the issue of environmental scarcity, examining its nature, its social impacts, and the degree to which linkages between scarcity and conflict exist in Pakistan.

We conclude that environmental scarcity rarely if ever acts as the sole cause of conflict. Other variables – most notably the character of the state, its development, its policies, and its relationship to the society at large – not only have increased environmental degradation, but also have interacted with environmental scarcity to generate social instability and conflict. We show that, together, these forces are triggering resource capture, marginalization of poor groups, rising economic hardship, and a weakening of the state. This interaction is heightening ethnic, communal, and class-based rivalries that have long plagued Pakistani society. This conjunction of pressures increases group-identity and deprivation conflict as groups turn to violence as a means of addressing their mounting grievances.

These conflicts are increasingly urban in character. Environmental scarcity is now a major contributor to the rapid expansion and fractionation of the urban population and to the growing inability of the state to meet this population’s demands. Within the Pakistani urban context, opportunities for competition among rival groups rise, struggles over scarce urban resources mount, and grievances proliferate. Yet as the relative capacity of the state erodes, means of addressing grievances and nonviolent channels for expressing them are less and less available. The result in Pakistan is a persistent escalation of urban violence.

Lasting solutions to this turmoil will require fundamental reforms in the Pakistani state and its policies. In their absence, strife will increase and could eventually contribute to regional instability.

Background: The State and Society

The Land and Its People

Pakistan, which means “land of the pure,”5 is a predominantly Muslim state located in the northwest of the Indian subcontinent. Extending from the northern Himalayan mountain ranges one thousand miles down to the Arabian Sea, it is bounded on the northwest by the mountain ranges of Koh Sulaiman and by Afghanistan and on the southwest by the Iranian section of Baluchistan. In the east, Pakistan is separated from India along the Sutlej River, the deserts of Rajasthan, and the Rann of Kutch; and a cease fire line dividing the Kashmir Valley separates the two countries in the north.6

The country has a total land area of approximately 310,322 square miles, much of which consists of desert and mountainous regions. Yet the river system of the Indus and its tributaries has provided Pakistan with some of the most fertile and best-irrigated land in the Indian subcontinent, and a majority of the population lives along its banks. Frequent, occasionally severe earthquakes occur in the northern and western regions, while flooding plagues the Indus valley after heavy rainfall.

Agriculture is the nation’s principal occupation, employing half of the country’s population and accounting for 25 percent of its GNP. Wheat, cotton, rice, barley, sugarcane, maize, and fodder are the main crops. In addition, the western province of Baluchistan supplies a rich crop of fruits and dates. The industrial sector is growing and employs over 20 percent of the formal workforce. Key industries include textiles, construction materials, sugar, paper products, and rubber. Mineral resources are modest. In addition to oil and gas reserves, Pakistan has deposits of uranium, coal, sulfur, chromate, limestone, and antimony.

The state has four constituent political units: the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), and the provinces of Punjab, Sind, and Baluchistan; a number of tribal areas are also administered by the federal government. Of the provinces, Punjab is the most populated and agriculturally rich, followed by Sind. Baluchistan, which is primarily desert, is sparsely populated, while much of the NWFP is also barren and predominantly tribal in character.

The physical diversity of Pakistan’s provinces is more than matched by the complex ethnic and cultural composition of the general population. The chief ethno linguistic groups are Punjabis, Sindhis, Pathans, Baluchis, and a significant population of Muhajirs – Urdu-speaking refugees and their descendants who migrated to the country en masse following the partition of the subcontinent and the country’s independence in August 1947. The dominant language is Punjabi (the first language of 65 percent of the population), followed by Sindhi (11 percent), Pushto (8 percent), and Urdu (9 percent). Gujarati, Sahraike, and Baluchi are among the languages of other ethnic minorities. English is generally spoken in business circles and in government.7 Islam, the state religion, is practiced by the vast majority of the populace. Muslims make up 97 percent of the population (77 percent Sunni and 20 percent Shia), while Hindus, Buddhists, and Christians constitute the remaining 3 percent.

State and Society

In theory, Pakistan is a federal polity, committed to Islamic religious principles and parliamentary rule. The executive consists of a prime minister, who heads the government, with a president acting as chief of state. The legislative branch is bicameral and consists of a popularly elected National Assembly and a largely advisory Senate, elected indirectly by members of the provincial assemblies.8

Yet the “practice” of truly democratic and representative politics has proven elusive. Nonelected institutions hold sway over their elected counterparts, and the state has long been dominated by a military and bureaucratic elite dedicated to advancing its own interests largely to the exclusion of those of society at large.

The contours of Pakistan’s “bureaucratic-authoritarian” state emerged soon after independence in 1947, as the challenges of nation building threatened to overwhelm the modest resources of the newly created country. Almost overnight, enormous social dislocations arising from partition, pressing defense requirements, and the need to assert authority over newly acquired and disparate territories confronted the state machinery with demands it could not meet.

Partition had yielded Pakistan 18 percent of the population, 17.5 percent of the financial assets, less than 10 percent of the industrial base, and slightly over 7 percent of the employment facilities of an undivided India.9 Organizational machinery was inadequate – particularly in the regions the regime acquired – and the largely migrant political leadership had little direct contact or rapport with the indigenous population of the lands it inherited.10

The pressing need to consolidate territory and defend the nation prompted a rapid expansion of administrative machinery and wholesale adoption of the colonial British “vice regal” system of administration and resource management. This system had been long geared to maintaining law, order, and the collection of revenues on behalf of the British Empire. It included a professional civil service with a deep knowledge of local conditions as well as great access to and influence over provincial populations.11 It was an effective tool – and one readily available to the new Pakistani regime – for augmenting state revenues and financing burgeoning defense budgets.

Military influence within the society expanded apace. The outbreak of war with India over the northern princely state of Kashmir only months after independence, lingering doubts over provincial loyalties to the newly formed state, and the internal dislocations and communal conflicts that attended independence all gave the military a critical role in the creation and maintenance of the state. Defense spending became a top priority and – along with the cost of civil administration – accounted for more than three-quarters of the federal government’s budget during the first decade after independence.12 This spending was soon supplemented by western aid, as Pakistan adopted the role of junior guardian of the Persian Gulf in the Cold War.13

Yet there was little corresponding effort to ensure the supremacy of elected institutions within Pakistani society. Administrative/bureaucratic influence over the state rapidly increased, and democratic institutions decayed. By the late 1950s, the civil-military bureaucracy had consolidated its hold on the government,14 and the country settled into a mode of state rule that remained largely unchanged for the next three decades. A succession of military and civilian regimes followed, and while each professed some commitment to greater political participation, all ultimately fell short of popular expectations. Elites often opted for a controlled form of democracy; they saw politics less as a participatory affair than as something to be steered from above.15

Recently, however, this pattern appears to have changed. After more than seven years of civilian-led government, some analysts now speak of a trend toward greater democratization of Pakistani politics.16There has been a routinization of some key elements of a democratic system, including more frequent general elections, somewhat more robust political parties, and a freer press. Nevertheless, nonelected institutions continue to have great power. The first prime ministerial tenure of Benazir Bhutto and that of her successor, Nawaz Sharif, were both, in effect, terminated following clashes with members of the permanent government.17 In short, while the grip of bureaucratic authoritarianism may have loosened, its final demise is a distant prospect at best.18

Character of the Pakistani Regime

Burdened by an over developed civil-military bureaucracy and exceedingly weak elected institutions, the Pakistani government has long been marked by a lack of accountability. Power and expertise are highly concentrated and largely reside in nonelected institutions and their supporters. Politicians often serve as junior partners in state rule, sometimes providing a cloak of legitimacy for the actions of the permanent government, and at other times acting as lightning rods to deflect popular criticism as bureaucrats run the nation from behind the scenes. Not surprisingly, rule by executive ordinance has dominated legislative action, and coercion has frequently eclipsed negotiation in federal-provincial deliberations.19

Meanwhile, institutional avenues for broad-based popular expression have remained weak. Although general elections have occurred more regularly in recent years, they were infrequent for much of Pakistani history. The first general election based on a broad franchise took place in 1970, a full 23 years after independence. Political parties are still poorly evolved; they resemble movements and factions that do not generally articulate national goals and concerns.20 Banned by government at various points in the nation’s history, their precarious existence encourages them to adopt narrow political platforms, often appealing to the aspirations of particular ethnic and religious groups.21

Economic development has generally reflected the attitude that prevailed during the colonial period, stressing efficient resource exploitation, rapid economic growth, and state profit over conservation and human welfare. Over the past five decades, the country has witnessed the emergence of a profusion of low-cost, high-polluting industries governed by few environmental guidelines.22 Similarly, during the 1960s agriculture began to stress techniques intended to boost short-term production, often at the expense of long-term sustainability.

Despite relatively impressive GNP growth rates (currently about 6 percent a year), economic returns have been largely directed toward meeting defense, debt-servicing, and administrative costs while neglecting human development. Improvements in the social well-being of the population have been marginal. Long ranked among the lowest in the world in terms of human development, the country lags in such areas as infant mortality, education (particularly for females), and the alleviation of poverty.23 Social services are poor and often funded through foreign aid. Today, approximately 31 percent of the population live in absolute poverty, infant morality stands at 95 per thousand live births, and 65 percent of the adult population aged 15 and over is illiterate.24

Meanwhile, strong traditions of environmental consciousness have been absent, both within government and in society at large. Environmental legislation has been weak or nonexistent. While adoption of the Environmental Protection Ordinance in 1983 marked the country’s first explicit attempt to deal with the environment, governmental practice often does not reflect the spirit of the legislation, and efforts to improve the environment continue to confront old mind-sets, political gridlock, and institutional weakness.

Underlying the system’s lack of political accountability and its developmental approach is a state structure deeply penetrated by powerful vested interests. In the years following independence, alliances among the state bureaucracy, large landowners, and a nascent industrial bourgeoisie were secured through patronage and bribes. Thereafter, the interests of the state and its supporters largely took precedence over all else. Dominated by a mainly Punjabi elite, the political and economic system concentrated power and investment in the western half of the country, to the great disadvantage of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh).

Ownership of land and industry remains highly concentrated, and it lies mainly in the hands of the bureaucracy and its supporters.25 Meanwhile, land grants, lucrative defense contracts, permits, loans, licenses, and jobs are awarded on the basis of personal contacts and the ability to perform political favors rather than on the basis of merit. Over time, such practices have become accepted as necessary and inevitable ways of conducting business, both within and outside government. Today, a culture of greed and an absence of civic-mindedness pervade Pakistani society.

The political and economic system has resulted in some extension of privilege. However, more often than not, this extension is a result of elites’ use of state resources to co-opt rivals and dissipate the potential challenges they pose. In the face of provincial discontent and threats of secession, the regime offers development money to provincial elites in exchange for political stability.26 Similarly, favors are conferred upon industrialists and commercial entrepreneurs to shore up loyalties. Combined with the narrow sectional politics encouraged by weak representative institutions, these elite tactics cause greater segmentation of society along lines of class and ethnicity, as well as a debilitation of organized opposition to elite interests.

Consequences of Regime Character

Such political practices exacerbate regional, ethnic, and class divisions within Pakistani society. As the state supplies patronage to certain regions and ethnic groups, it creates classes that tend to reflect regional and ethnic divides.27 Moreover, efforts to harness provincial resources to fill federal coffers breed regional alienation and resentment among provincial elites. Punjabi dominance of the civil-military bureaucracy, along with a high concentration of wealth and investment in Punjab Province, fuel accusations of unfair treatment and exploitation from other provinces and ethnic groups.

Before 1971, neglect of East Pakistan was particularly glaring. Dominance of the political system by West Pakistani elites resulted in marked economic disparities favoring West over East and wholly inadequate representation of the East’s Bengali majority in government services. Bengali resentments mounted, and support for provincial autonomy increased. By late 1970, West Pakistan’s gestures of electoral reform28 and, by extension, more equitable representation proved illusory: general election results that did not favor West Pakistan’s elite were disallowed. Consequently, in 1971 civil war and secession led to the creation of Bangladesh. Further fragmentation has been avoided, yet secessionist pressures persist, with Baluchistan, in particular, rebelling during the 1970s.

Today, provinces continue to quarrel over distribution of resources and power relative to one another and to the central government. Disputes over the waters of the Indus River are especially frequent: major canal and dam diversions in Punjab prompt accusations by Sind of unfair distribution of water. The constant contention among provinces results in costly delays in infrastructure projects.29

State practices have also fueled tensions within the provinces, particularly in Sind, Pakistan’s most multiethnic province. Neglect of the long-standing demands of a burgeoning Muhajir population in Sind’s urban centers and the general absence of broad-based representative institutions have brought ethnic and class tensions to the political breaking point.

Problems followed the division of the subcontinent in 1947, as waves of Urdu-speaking Muhajirs migrating from northern India marginalized the province’s local Sind population both ethnically and linguistically. Primarily settling in Sind’s urban centers (Karachi and Hyderabad), the new arrivals promptly filled the void created by the departure of Sind’s Hindu population to form the bulk of the middle class. They also took over a substantial portion of property left by Hindus fleeing to India. The Muhajirs came to dominate various forms of commercial and industrial activity in the province, and Urdu replaced Sindhi as the province’s official language. They also retained considerable strength in the bureaucracy, despite growing Punjabi dominance.

However, over the years waves of non-Muhajir migrants (for example, Punjabis and Pathans) in search of employment, along with the implementation of a system of placement quotas for government jobs and college entrance, curtailed Muhajir opportunities.30 Combined with efforts by Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto to redress Sindhi grievances during the 1970s, Muhajir alienation and resentment grew. Increasingly underrepresented within the corridors of political power and influence, yet constituting a dynamic economic and commercial force in Sind’s urban centers, Muhajirs gradually identified themselves as a people without a state.

Rural Sindhi were equally dissatisfied. Deep resentment of Muhajirs was accompanied by similar animosities toward Punjabis, who dominated a civil and military bureaucracy stationed in the interior of Sind and owned vast tracts of land within the province. Sindhi underrepresentation within commerce and industry magnified these resentments.31

By the early 1980s, the long absence of nationally based political parties had reinforced organization of loyalties along narrow ethnic lines. In rural areas, rising Sindhi nationalism led to clashes between Sindhi guerrilla bands and Punjabi troops. Rural-urban migration continued unabated, taxing the absorptive capacities of cities and heightening competition among diverse groups for limited urban resources. War in Afghanistan added a heavy influx of refugees, narcotics, and arms to the urban mix, creating a huge black market economy and strengthening the power and influence of organized crime in the process. Not surprisingly, violence became commonplace in Sind’s urban centers, with the Muhajir Qaumi Movement (MQM) championing the Muhajir cause.

As turmoil has escalated in the 1980s and 1990s, the Muhajirs have demanded recognition as the fifth nationality of Pakistan, a fairer allocation of provincial resources, and greater representation in elected bodies, federal and provincial services, and the police force.32 Yet official efforts to address these problems have been inadequate, because of chronic institutional weakness at both the provincial and the national levels and a lack of support for the Muhajir cause within political elites.33 The conflict has bred suspicions of collusion between India and MQM “terrorists.” In addition, efforts to meet Mujahir demands would compromise powerful vested interests, especially in rural Sind.34

The highly inegalitarian character of the state also influences economic policy, often to the detriment of stability. Although successive regimes have achieved relatively impressive aggregate economic growth, they have not, for the most part, concerned themselves with the equitable distribution of the results of that growth. As a result, the ranks of the dispossessed have grown and their grievances have intensified. Meanwhile, the political strength of the military, the need to maintain internal order, and the rivalry with India have kept military spending high. As a result, Pakistan has relied heavily on foreign borrowing and development assistance and has accumulated considerable foreign debt. Today, along with annual defense spending averaging 6.8 percent of GDP – the highest in South Asia – debt servicing represents a major constraint on government spending. By the early 1990s, defense spending and debt servicing accounted for more than 80 percent of total government expenditures.35

For a time, remittances from nationals working abroad tended to mask the severe resource constraints facing the government. They accounted for almost 40 percent of exchange earnings and nearly 8 percent of GNP at their height in the early 1980s.36 Yet by mid decade, their decline combined with a low domestic savings rate and tightening conditions on international loans to dampen growth.

By 1987-88, loans from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank were tied to a structural adjustment package requiring deficit reduction, controls on inflation, and a series of other measures intended to cut spending and boost revenues. Policies aimed at meeting IMF guidelines included a withdrawal of food subsidies, bans on government recruitment, increased privatization, and higher taxation of the business community. Unemployment increased and incomes of labor and the poor declined throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s.37

Recent improvements in aggregate economic performance and some signs of renewed investor confidence in the country suggest a better economic picture. Yet problems remain. Domestic savings and investment are still low. Revenues from direct taxation are especially troubling, with only about 1 percent of the population paying direct income tax.38 The existing system of tax collection is plagued by corruption and inefficiency, and vested interests oppose major reform; Punjab’s politically powerful feudal landlords are especially intransigent.

Also troubling is the low employment intensity of recent growth. This phenomenon is partly attributable to a shift from labor-intensive to more capital-intensive industries and to continuing state subsidies that favor capital over labor. Since 1977, the number of jobs generated per unit of investment in industry has declined at a rate of 11 percent per year.39 Current estimates suggest that each 1 percent gain in GDP translates to a mere 0.4 percent growth in employment.40 Meanwhile, efforts to develop human resources remain weak, and civil strife in the nation’s urban centers drains revenues and deters the creation of a truly stable climate for investment and job creation. These trends threaten long-term prospects for a healthy economy.

Environmental Scarcity and the Pakistani State

Pakistan’s physical environment has deteriorated markedly since independence. State policies and the character of the state itself have created critical environmental scarcities throughout the country. These scarcities have been demand-induced (the result of a growing population and rising per capita resource consumption), supply-induced (a consequence of resource depletion and degradation), and structural (the result of an unequal distribution of resources within society).41 Moreover, they have been accompanied by processes of “resource capture” and “ecological marginalization.”

Resource capture occurs when population growth combines with a decline in the quantity and quality of renewable resources to encourage powerful groups to alter the distribution of resources in their favor.42 Resources are in effect appropriated by elites, increasing environmental scarcity among poorer or weaker groups as a result. Groups experiencing this scarcity are then often ecologically marginalized as they migrate to rural or urban regions that are ecologically fragile. The resulting high population densities in the receiving areas, along with the migrants’ lack of capital and knowledge of how to protect local resources, act to generate further environmental damage and chronic poverty.43

In the case of Pakistan, such scarcities and the patterns of behavior they generate owe much to the state’s lack of accountability, its vice regal approach to economic development, and its penetration by special interests.

Lack of Accountability and Rising Scarcity

Over the years, the widespread lack of accountability of state officials and their supporters, along with Pakistan’s vice regal approach to development, has produced excessive exploitation of the country’s resource base. The result has been a progressively increasing nation wide scarcity of renewable resources (Figure 1).

Fashioned to meet the needs of a colonial ruler, the vice regal system was founded on the principle of efficient resource exploitation of the “hinterland” to generate maximum profit for the British Empire. With rapid economic growth as this system’s chief aim and Britain as its sole focus, issues of resource sustainability and of the host population’s welfare were, at best, secondary. Early on, therefore, the perception of the appropriate relationship between natural resources and human need was distorted.44

With independence, Pakistan’s elite adopted this colonial model wholesale. The system and its organizational culture remained intact, only the identities of its chief beneficiaries changed. Exploitation of the nation’s resource base continued apace, although now in the service of the new state’s elites and their supporters instead of a foreign colonizer. The masses remained the last to be considered.

Models of national development stressed growth in commodity production and consumption as the benchmarks of success,45 and industrial and agricultural strategies emphasized cheap and rapid production at the expense of conservation. Industries using low-cost, highly polluting technologies proliferated. Mega-projects, such as reservoirs and dams, were conceived with an eye more to boosting national development than to their impact on local communities.46 And agriculture relied on techniques aimed at increasing short-term production. Although heavy use of fertilizers and pesticides raised yields, the potential long-term impacts were generally ignored.

The pervasive lack of accountability inherent in the political system reinforced these features of the Pakistani development process. Strong and institutionalized means for popular expression and input were not available to constrain social exploitation and environmental degradation. The state did not legislate rigorous environmental guidelines; elites unburdened by concerns of responsibility to the broader public ignored those guidelines that did exist.

It was also impossible to change significantly the distribution of wealth yielded by development. Since elites could not be held responsible for their actions, the fruits of development went mainly to the government and its supporters. There was minimal articulation of popular demands for greater investment in human development, and there was little pressure on elites to respond to such demands.

Over time, the effects of vice regal development and low accountability became increasingly apparent. Unhampered exploitation of resources in the name of economic growth encouraged the rise of supply-induced scarcity as development practices degraded and depleted renewable resources, such as agricultural land, water, and forests. At the same time, lack of investment in human development and social welfare fueled scarcity from the supply side, as a highly impoverished, poorly educated, and politically disenfranchised Islamic population grew rapidly. Meanwhile, the weakness of institutional constraints on elite practices ensured that a seriously inequitable form of development proceeded largely unchecked, which perpetuated elite privilege and, consequently, structural scarcity.

Scarcity and the Penetrated State

Environmental scarcity and resource degradation have been accompanied by a gradual increase in resource capture by elites and a consequent ecological marginalization of large numbers of poor and disadvantaged. Here, environmental scarcity has interacted with the highly penetrated nature of the Pakistani state to encourage both processes (Figure 2).

As noted above, unhampered exploitation of resources along with high population growth have progressively eroded the country’s natural resource base. As scarcities of critical renewable resources – such as forests, land, and water – worsen, their prices increase, which in turn increases the incentive for powerful groups to acquire them and extract quasi-monopolistic economic rents. The deeply penetrated structure of the Pakistani state encourages this appropriation or “capture” of scarce natural resources: elites often already have preferential access to and control over resources; moreover, resources are a key means by which power and privilege are retained and expanded in the country’s corrupt political system.

To reward, co-opt, or bribe potential challengers, the Pakistani regime often distributes concessions allowing powerful individuals and groups to exploit natural resources. This political behavior breeds chronic corruption and inefficiency: bribes and buy offs are commonplace at the highest levels of the state, and these practices are replicated at lower levels and in private transactions. Most importantly, it allows favored individuals and well connected entrepreneurs to appropriate valuable state lands, forests, and other resources at relatively low cost.

Such activity yields great profit for those involved, since they can sell, rent, or speculate on the resources in question. It also leads to misery for the local communities that depend on these resources for their livelihoods. The result is often the ecological marginalization of those affected. As resources are appropriated and exploited for profit, they become less available to local populations, increasing pressure on remaining stocks. These stocks are quickly depleted and degraded, and growing impoverishment eventually leads people to migrate, often to Pakistan’s urban centers.

The rural-urban migrants generally settle in low-income areas, characterized by high population densities and rudimentary living conditions. Because of high urban land prices, they are often forced to build their settlements on the least desirable lands – areas that frequently flood, that lack basic services, or that lie beside transportation infrastructure, such as highways and railways. Despite their low quality, these lands are also often subject to resource capture by powerful urban entrepreneurs, and the terms of settlement for incoming migrants can be highly exploitative.

The Severity and Extent of Environmental Scarcity in Pakistan

Pakistan is exhibiting increasingly severe demand, supply, and structural scarcities of key natural resources, as well as the resource capture and ecological marginalization associated with these scarcities.

Population Growth

Today, Pakistan is the tenth most populous nation in the world with more than 128 million inhabitants. Its current population growth rate of 3.1 percent implies a population doubling time of 22 years. Given present trends and the absence of an effective population policy, the population will likely exceed 200 million by 2010.47

There is considerable variation in population distribution. Some arid areas of Baluchistan average as few as 2 persons per square kilometer, while irrigated districts of the Punjab average 400 persons. Water and soil availability are the chief reasons for such variation. Thus, areas of low density have little spare absorption capacity.48

The high growth rate (Table 1) is largely due to sustained high fertility coupled with rapid declines in mortality brought on by the introduction of modern health care methods and improved nutrition. Over the past 24 years, Pakistan’s fertility rate has not dropped below 6.25 and currently stands at 6.6.49 Interestingly, reductions in infant morality have not been as dramatic as those for the general population as a whole. Many children continue to perish due to diseases contracted through unsanitary habits, bad water, and contaminated food. High infant mortality, along with a lack of education among poorer groups (particularly women), has discouraged family planning, and kept birth rates high.

Table 1: Demographic Profile, 1970-1985
1970 1975 1980 1985
Crude Birth Rate (per 1000 population) 36.5a 40.5b 41.5c 43.3c
Crude Death Rate (per 1000 population) 10.5a 10.5d 10.7c 11.5c
Total Fertility Rate (per Woman) 6.25a 6.28b 6.48e 6.9c
Infant Mortality Rate (per 1000 live births) 139b 125e 121c 115c
Average Household Size 6.6 6.0df 6.7f 6.4c
Male Life Expectancy 53.6a 54.5d 56.6g 57.1c
Female Life Expectancy 47.6a 55.5d 57.8g 58.6c
Percentage Urban 23.4f 26.0f 28.0f 30.0f
Sources:a. Pakistan Growth Survey Series I, 1968-1971; b. Pakistan Fertility Survey, 1970-75; c. Pakistan Demographic Survey, 1984-86; d. Pakistan Growth Survey Series II, 1976-79; e. Population Labour Force, Migration Survey, 1975-1979; f. Census 1972-81, Interpolation; g. Pakistan Growth Survey Series II and Pakistan Demographic Survey, Extrapolation.

Efforts at family planning have met with limited success, particularly in rural areas. Pakistan now has a population pyramid with an extremely wide base. About 45 percent of the population is under 15, while 55 percent is under 20 years of age.50 This demographic structure results in steadily rising demands for social services, especially schools, housing, and jobs.

The impacts of rapid population growth are pervasive. They include the sub division of rural agricultural holdings, which decreases the amount of cultivated land per rural inhabitant; the denudation of well-forested hillsides; the migration of villages en masse from high mountain pastures to valleys; and the migration of large numbers of young people to cities.51

Demand and Supply-Induced Scarcity

Land. Pakistan comprises 88.2 million hectares of land, of which 61.8 million has been surveyed. Approximately 20 million hectares is used for agriculture, while some 31 million hectares is forest, rangeland, unutilized, or unutilizable (Figure 3: Map of Agroecological Regions).52

Map of Agroecological Regions

Since independence, the area of land under cultivation has increased by approximately 40 percent.53 Yet today the country is approaching its physical limits. Of the total surveyed land area, less than 20 percent retains the potential for intensive agricultural use, while 62 percent is classified as having low potential for crop, livestock, and forestry production. Overall, land categorized as cultivable represents less than one-quarter of the country’s total area. Today, nearly all of this land is already under cultivation. Very little additional land is available for the expansion of agriculture.54

Shortages of arable land do not, of course, preclude an increase in agricultural production. Practices such as double-cropping, increases in labor productivity, and better technical inputs (such as new grains) can boost agricultural output. But a number of forces have combined to prevent the realization of the country’s full agricultural potential. These include poor water management practices (which restrict double-cropping), a system of absentee landlords, the fragmentation of landholdings, the reduction in farm size from generation to generation as farming populations rise, poor access to agricultural capital, poor technology transfer to farmers, and a lack of information concerning the use of agricultural inputs, such as fertilizers and pesticides.55 The heavy use of fertilizers (Table 2) particularly during the 1960s and 1970s, has also left soils deficient in a number of nutrients essential to plant growth.56

Table 2: Fertilizer Use 1960-87
Period Fertilizer Offtake
(1,000 Nutrient Tons)
Growth Rate
(Percent Annually)
1960-65 3 – 71 17.7
1965-70 71 – 283 31.2
1960-70 31 – 283 24.6
1970-75 283 – 584 14.3
1975-80 548 – 1079 14.5
1970-80 283 – 1079 14.2
1980-87 1079 – 1784 8.8
Source: Arif Hasan and Amenah Azam Ali, Environmental Repercussions of Development in
(Karachi: OPP-RTI, March 1993), 36.

Soil maps of the central-western region (an area representing approximately 40 percent of the country) reveal land affected by light water and wind erosion, a loss of topsoil, and some terrain deformation. In the southwest and along the southern coastal fringe west of Karachi, wind-eroded and salinized soils predominate. Desert soils, highly salinized soil, and some severely eroded areas are found along the Indo-Pakistani border, and soil in the lowlands of the Indus River valley also suffers from salinization. Meanwhile, lands in and around the northeastern tip of the country are classified as “stable” under normal conditions.57

The most important causes for reduced land productivity are water and wind erosion, salinity and sodicity,58 waterlogging, flooding, and loss of organic matter (Tables 3 – 5). According to the government’s Report on the Pakistan National Conservation Strategy, 17 percent of surveyed soils (which include most of the soils usable for agriculture, forestry, or ranching) are affected by water erosion, 7.6 percent by wind erosion, 8.6 percent by salinity and sodicity, and 8.6 percent by flooding and ponding; fully 96 percent suffer from less-than-adequate organic matter. These problems often occur simultaneously and produce synergistic impacts on agricultural productivity. Soils can suffer from both water and wind erosion, and poor organic-matter content is universal, reducing the potential productivity of the best as well as the worst of soils.59

Table 3: Area Affected by Water Erosion
Degree of Erosion Province Pakistan
Punjab Sind NWFP+FATA Baluchistan N.A.
(1,000 Hectares)
(sheet & rill erosion)
61.2 156.3 180.5 398.0
(sheet & rill erosion)
896.8 853.8 1,805.0 25.8 3,581.4
(rill, gully, and/or streambank erosion)
588.1 58.9 1,765.1 829.6 504.2 3,745.9
Very Severe
(gully, pipe, and pinnacle erosion)
357.9 1,517.0 1,571.6 3,446.5
TOTAL 1,904.0 58.9 4,292.2 2,634.6 2,282.1 11,171.8
Source: Alim Mian and Yasin Javed Mirza, Pakistan’s Soil Resources: Pakistan National Conservation Strategy Sector Paper (Karachi: IUCN-World Conservation Union, 1993), 13.
Table 4: Area Affected by Wind Erosion
Degree of Erosion Province
Punjab Sind NWFP+FATA Baluchistan N.A. Pakistan
(1,000 Hectares)
Slight 2,251.4 295.0 13.1 36.0 2,595.5
Moderate 279.1 70.2 3.8 143.6 496.7
Severe to Very Severe 1,274.0 273.8 19.6 100.9 1,668.3
TOTAL 3,804.5 639.0 36.5 280.5 4,760.5
Source: Alim Mian and Yasin Javed Mirza, Pakistan’s Soil Resources: Pakistan National Conservation Strategy Sector Paper (Karachi: IUCN-World Conservation Union, 1993), 14.
Table 5: Area Affected by Salt
Punjab Sind NWFP Total Indus Plains
(1,000 Hectares)
Total Command Canal Area (CCA): 7,891 5,351 320 13,562
Within CCA: Salt Affected Area 1,614 1,532 14 3,160
Percent 20.4 28.6 4.3 23.3
Outside CCA: Salt Affected Area 1,129 1,019 502 2,650
TOTAL 2,743 2,551 516 5,810
Source: Ministry of Food and Agriculture, Government of Pakistan, Report of the National Commission on Agriculture (Islamabad: Government of Pakistan, March 1988), 295.

Water. An arid and semi-arid country, Pakistan’s water sources have always been limited. The country has regularly experienced critical water shortages, which lead to power blackouts and also to inadequate supplies of irrigation water for the main crop-growing season. To compensate, a finely balanced system of water management for irrigation, electricity, and industry has been developed. The system is shaped in part by the Indus Waters Treaty. Signed in 1960 by India and Pakistan following long-standing water disputes,60 the treaty gives Pakistan control over the Indus and its western tributaries the Jhelum and Chenab, while India controls the Ravi, Beas, and Sutlej branches in the east. The treaty also allowed Pakistan to construct two large storage and hydroelectric dams: the Tarbela on the Indus and the Mangala on the Jhelum, as well as a system of smaller dams, inter river canals, and irrigation canals. This irrigation network now services about 16 percent of the country and is one of the largest such systems in the world. As much as 65 percent of agricultural land is irrigated, accounting for about 90 percent of the country’s food and fiber production.

Approximately 175 billion cubic meters of water enters the Indus Basin annually. Of this, 128 billion cubic meters is diverted for irrigation purposes to the canal heads, while remaining water flows to the sea. Although this flow to the sea is needed to maintain a viable river ecosystem, especially in the Indus estuary, experts agree that much of it could be stored for irrigation.61 Yet, Pakistan currently lacks the necessary storage capacity, in part because of heavy silting of reservoirs,. The absence of this water is one of the factors preventing the nation from attaining food self-sufficiency.62

The existing irrigation system is also highly inefficient. Of the 128 billion cubic meters diverted for irrigation, about 52 billion cubic meters is lost to seepage and evaporation from canals and watercourses. This loss is a major cause of waterlogging and salinity of soils in the Indus Basin. Vertical pumping systems used for drainage are proving unsustainable: the recycled water contains chemicals that produce sodicity63 and reduce the life of pumping machines.

No serious effort has been made to develop a drainage system to parallel the irrigation system. In Punjab alone there are about 280,000 tube wells pumping 51 billion cubic meters of water and using about 2,400 megawatts of subsidized power. One hundred million metric tons of salts have been pumped up in the process.64 The salts have decreased crop productivity in 1.2 million hectares of prime land in the Canal Command Area, which is about 5 percent of the total agricultural land in Pakistan. Another 2.1 million hectares of salt-affected lands exist in Punjab’s non-sweet water areas. The result is lower crop productivity.65

Beyond the Indus Basin, sharp drops in the water tables of underground aquifers – of 15 centimeters to over 60 centimeters (cm) per year – are occurring in a number of areas. The water table in the Northern Basin of the Quetta Valley is falling at the extraordinary rate of 200 cm per annum, while the Southern Basin has registered a yearly decline of 60 cm.66 The groundwater table in Lahore is falling at a rate of 30 cm per year in the central part of the city due to excessive withdrawals by a growing urban population.67

An inadequate sewage treatment infrastructure adds to problems. Many of Pakistan’s rivers are now badly polluted with domestic sewage and industrial waste. A recent study of the Kabul River (near Peshawar) reveals that parts of the river and some of its tributaries have become open sewers.68 Much of this polluted river water is used for drinking and irrigation. In fact, inadequate drinking water represents a long-standing and serious problem in several parts of the country.69 It is increasingly common to see people in many parts of the country walking for kilometers to fill a container with water.70

Forests. As legally defined by the government, areas designated as “forests” include both natural and plantation forests, as well as areas with closed forest cover and open cover; the definition even includes some territory with little tree cover.71 Clearer are the designations of “production” and “protected” areas offered in the Forest Act of 1927. Production forests are used mainly for the direct material products of their growth. They have a high tree density and, in most instances, a closed tree canopy. They represent the chief source of timber and currently make up 27.6 percent of total forest area.72 Protected areas are largely intended to guard against soil erosion and today account for a full 72.4 percent of total forest area.73

Such distinctions have nonetheless done little to prevent the decline of forest areas generally. Over the past 75 years, forests have decreased from 14.2 percent to 5.2 percent (4.57 million hectares) of Pakistan’s total land area, with less than 3 percent currently under tree cover. Closed cover forests account for under 1 million hectares.74

Efforts at afforestation and watershed management have not kept pace with increased demand for timber and excessive cutting and overgrazing. Between 1974 and 1985, timber supplies from state forests declined by 45 percent, in part because of reduced forest area. The total loss of forest occurred at a rate of 0.4 percent from 1981 through 1984 and has now decreased to 0.2 percent per annum.75 This figure translates into the destruction of 7,000 to 9,000 hectares of forested land every year.76 Today, Pakistan imports about 30 percent of the timber it uses.77

The heavy deforestation stems from a number of factors. During both the colonial and the post independence periods, entrepreneurs took over and commercially exploited large forest tracts to satisfy the demands of a growing rural and urban population. With the development of canals, hundreds of thousands of hectares of riverine, scrub, and forest land in the Indus plains were cleared for agriculture. Energy demand also has increased pressure on the forests. Wood currently meets approximately one half of national energy requirements. Annual consumption now stands at an estimated 19.70 million cubic meters and is expected to rise to 30.66 million cubic meters by the year 2000. According to the 1980 housing census, approximately 70 percent of all households in Pakistan relied upon wood for cooking and heating, with dependence reaching 80 percent in rural areas.78 Given continuing high population growth, reports of a further rise in timber demand for cooking and heating are hardly surprising.79

The negative consequences of uncontrolled forest exploitation are ever more obvious. They include serious soil erosion and sedimentation, desertification of once-productive upland areas, the silting up of waterways in the plains (making them more prone to flooding), and marked scarcities of fuelwood and building timber (creating an economic burden on low-income communities).80 The decline in tree cover has already resulted in a large reduction in watershed and reservoir efficiency. Except for a small headpond with daily storage capacity, Pakistan’s important Warsak Reservoir – built in 1960 – is now completely silted up. The water’s silt burden has caused serious wear on all rotating parts of the reservoir’s hydroelectric generating station, and the main powerhouse structure is suffering from alkali-aggregate reaction.81 Efforts at watershed management should lengthen the life of more recent projects, such as the Mangela and Tarbella Reservoirs; yet reports indicate that, even in these cases sedimentation is occurring at a rate which could render them inoperative in as little as forty years.82

These processes have major implications for the availability of water for irrigation and power generation. Indeed, some experts predict large deficits of water and electricity in the future, with considerable impact on agriculture and the economy. According to the World Bank, while less than 10 percent of Pakistan’s hydroelectric potential has actually been exploited, further development is heavily constrained by silting.83 Nevertheless, projected stagnation in growth of supplies of natural gas Pakistan’s chief energy source – is likely to heighten demand for electricity.84 Energy supplies have been growing at 7.2 percent per year, while demand is increasing at 8.3 percent annually,85 and the country has already experienced serious loadshedding due to electricity shortfalls.86

The effects of flooding are even more salient. Floods have not only produced loss of life and property, but also serious damage to irrigation networks, crops, and transportation and communication systems and utilities. Between 1973 and 1978, a succession of floods in Punjab and Sind affected over 12 million people and over 8 million hectares of land and destroyed an estimated 70 percent of the total standing crop.87 More recently, in 1992, landslides, accelerated soil erosion, and large quantities of felled, unclaimed timber moving down the Kunhar, Siran, Daur, and Jhelum Rivers in Hazara resulted in widespread destruction of lives and infrastructure. According to a report released by the Sungi Development Foundation, the felled timber:

destroyed approximately 30 to 35 water mills on the banks of the Kunhar River in the Kaghan Valley, demolished bridges used as links between remote villages and commercial centers, damaged much needed sources of irrigation, and wiped out precious agricultural land.88

Overall, Pakistan’s Economic Survey reported devastating floods as a chief cause of a 3.9 percent drop in agricultural output for fiscal 1992-93. Direct losses from flooding were estimated at PRs. 40 million (approximately US$1.5 million) for that year.89

Sources of Structural Scarcity

Regional resource disparities have always existed. Of Pakistan’s four provinces, both Punjab and Sind contain the majority of the nation’s population, industrial capacity, irrigation networks, and prime agricultural land. In contrast, the NWFP and Bal-uchistan are less endowed. Long-standing distributional inequities also exist among groups, including between landlords and peasants in rural areas, among classes in the urban context, and among ethnic communities throughout the country.

As discussed above, the state has often exacerbated these inequalities rather than ameliorated them. Pakistan’s overdeveloped military-bureaucratic oligarchy is marked by corruption and patronage and an almost total lack of accountability. Truly independent and representative political institutions have never developed at any level of governance.

This situation has virtually guaranteed that economic and social policy has been unbalanced or excessively influenced by parochial interests. The elite and middle class represent narrow strata of society but control an exceedingly large share of resources and industry. Even in Pakistan’s most troubled cities, they ensure themselves a comfortable lifestyle and access to services through political pressure and bribes, while those in less fortunate areas are ignored.90 High- and middle-income groups in fact absorb the vast majority of urban resources, with the wealthiest 25 percent of the urban population receiving almost two-thirds of housing and services.91

The military is especially privileged. Over the years, military personnel have become deeply entrenched in the economic life of the country, heading up numerous corporations in the public sector and strongly represented on the boards of many private companies. According to Ayesha Jalal, each of the three defense services have trusts and foundations with extensive investments in the national economy. For instance the Fauji Foundation – run by the army – owns eight manufacturing units that produce sugar, fertilizer, cereals, liquid gas, and metals; in addition, it has a gas field, transportation companies, schools, hospitals, and investments in defense production industries. All are exempt from taxation and legislation covering the manufacturing sector and are not required to disclose their assets or make shares available for public subscription.92

Meanwhile, in rural areas, large landowners dominate life and derive the majority of benefits from agriculture. State policy often strengthens their position. For instance, while policies implemented during Pakistan’s “green revolution” significantly boosted overall agricultural productivity through the use of high-yield crops, fertilizer, and irrigation, these technologies favored large landholders (those with over 40 hectares). Large, well-connected landholders thrived, while many smaller farmers were eventually left landless.93

Land reforms have failed to alter fundamentally the highly skewed distribution of rural wealth. Both in 1959 and in 1972, reform legislation imposed ceilings on individual rather than family ownership, which ensured that the vast bulk of land under cultivation remained in the hands of a privileged minority.94 According to one source, a mere 1 percent of landless tenants and small peasant holders directly benefited from the reforms.95 Still another notes that between 1972 and 1980, the share of total agricultural land held by the poorest 40 percent of agricultural households declined from 11 percent to 10 percent, while the share of the top 20 percent jumped from 55 percent to 57 percent. Rural income distribution moved in the same direction.96

Recent evaluation of the relationship between resources and society in Pakistan suggests little change in the patterns of inequality producing such scarcities or in the mentality underlying them. According to a recent report on the environment by the Pakistan Administrative Staff College, Pakistan is “a predatory and factional country. Economic policy and management . . . are often designed to serve the interests of the elite, who are engaged in obtaining advantages for themselves.”97

Resource Capture and Ecological Marginalization

Accompanying widespread supply-induced, demand-induced, and structural scarcities is growing evidence of resource capture and ecological marginalization in the agricultural and timber industries and in urban areas.

Resource Capture

The Green Revolution. The introduction of green revolution technologies in Pakistan contributed to resource capture. Launched in the early 1960s, the revolution was an attempt to increase agricultural production to meet the rising food demands of a growing population. In short, it was launched as part of an effort to address real and impending resource scarcities within the nation.

Application of these new technologies – which combined high-yield hybrid grains with greater use of fertilizers and irrigation – improved agricultural performance and increased grain output. However, the economically efficient use of these technologies demanded particularly large tracts of agricultural land. Consequently, the green revolution favored large, well connected landowners. Not only could they exploit the new technologies to maximum effect, but the revenues generated from their use enabled large landowners to take over additional land for cultivation. Farmers with smaller land holdings were eventually bought out, and many became landless. Those with medium-sized holdings (3 to 10 hectares) were hit especially hard.

Indeed, census data for 1960 to 1972 in Punjab Province (where green revolution technologies were most widely adopted) reveal that the new technologies resulted in a polarization of farm-size distribution: the percentage land area of large and small farms increased, while that of medium-sized farms declined (Tables 6 and 7).

Tables 6 & 7: Percentage of Farms and Farm Area by Size of Farm: 1960 and 1972 in Punjab
Size of Farm
Farm Area
Less than 3 9.93 11.80
3 to 10 51.15 46.42
10 to 20 20.23 21.30
20 to 60 12.94 14.72
60 and above 5.76 5.77
TOTAL 100.0 100.0
Size of Farm
Farm Area
Less than 3 9.9 11.8
3 to 10 51.2 46.4
10 and above 38.9 41.8
TOTAL 100.0 100.0
Source: Akmal Hussain, Strategic Issues in Pakistan’s Economic Policy (Lahore: Progressive
Publishers, 1988), 188.

Motivated by the potential profits of green revolution technologies, large landowners resumed self-cultivation of land previously rented out to both small- and medium-sized farmers. The latter suffered disproportionately because a higher percentage of them were tenant farmers. The result was a shift of farmers from the lower-medium- to the small-farm category over the inter-censual period. Polarization in farm size also contributed to landlessness among the poor peasantry. According to Akmal Hussain, census data reveal that 794,000 peasants – 43 percent of all agricultural laborers in Pakistan in 1973 – entered the category of wage laborers from 1961 to 1973.98 Many of these peasants were evicted from their land during the process of change ushered in by the green revolution.

In short, concern over resource scarcities, the structure of Pakistan’s agrarian economy, and new agricultural technologies combined to increase the incentives and opportunities for rural elites to appropriate, or capture, cropland, in the process increasing the number of small holder and landless peasants. Many were forced to move to other areas in search of employment, with small towns and cities receiving the largest share of the migration.

The Timber Mafia. The exploitation of Pakistan’s forests exhibited a similar process. While deforestation has a long history, rates have been particularly high over the past decade, in large part because of rising demand for fuelwood. Land management and property rights legislation have failed to ensure adequate regulation of the forest industry.

In many cases, strong urban and rural groups have appropriated both community and government lands for themselves. According to a recent report published by the Pakistan Administrative Staff College in Lahore, a “timber mafia” – a term coined to describe persons and groups having a commercial interest in rapid forest exploitation -is now ravaging Pakistan’s dwindling forests.99

Those involved in the timber business have acquired leading roles in forest institutions and are deeply entrenched in the state’s administrative machinery. These individuals, who are traditional tribal leaders and Sayyeds (direct descendants of Muhammad), have been able both to manipulate legislation to serve their interests and to block changes in the law that would make forest management more participatory and sustainable.100

During the late 1970s and early 1980s, such individuals used large transfers of state development funds to open up forest areas for exploitation. Road and electrification programs facilitated commercial cutting while reinforcing the political and social control of tribal leaders over indigenous populations.101 Thereafter, the collusion of forest officials, large forestland owners, and contractors allowed timber extraction to proceed with little significant regulation.

The Chitral District in the NWFP is an example of such activity and its effects. The felling and smuggling of timber has been a constant source of irritation for the Kalush ethnic minority who reside there. Yet efforts to stop these practices have often been weak and unorganized and have at times prompted retaliation from timber interests. In one case, a Kalush leader survived an attempted murder, while his brother was killed after filing a court case about timber, grazing, and land rights in Rumbur Valley. Meanwhile, overharvesting of timber by colluding special interests continues in the Kalush valleys, causing migrations of villagers from high mountain pastures to valleys and of young people to cities in search of work.102 The districts of Malakand and Hazara have experienced similar problems.103

Land Barons and the Tanker Mafia. Meanwhile, in large urban centers, such as Karachi, dramatically rising population and expanding commercial and industrial activity have resulted in a steady increase in the value of land. Technically, about four-fifths of all lands in Karachi are publicly owned.104 However, deep-seated government corruption, along with bribery, has allowed entrepreneurs to appropriate these lands for profit.

This resource capture has not only led to widespread land speculation, but also to a thriving business founded on illegal squatter settlements. Settlement land is subdivided into plots and sold to low-income groups, usually for a moderate initial outlay. Yet interest rates for money borrowed for the initial purchase and for services are high. Moreover, given that such dwellings are illegal, constant bribes are required to prevent demolition by local authorities, and tenants face a similar threat for delinquency in payment to the landlord.105

Corrupt civic agencies have allowed similar practices to govern the distribution of essential services. In Karachi, high demand for water along with rampant corruption and mismanagement in the Karachi Water Supply Board has created a “tanker mafia.” Tankers obtain water from illegal hydrants or from poorer districts in the city and then sell it for profit.106 The customers are often the inhabitants of the very districts from which the water was taken, and exorbitant prices force many to purchase the water on credit.107 The results of such practices are increasing profit for entrepreneurs and local authorities and growing impoverishment of low-income urban dwellers.108

Ecological Marginilization

Resource capture often prompts a flight of dispossessed inhabitants from affected areas in search of a better life. Receiving areas – whether rural or urban – are frequently ecologically vulnerable and are further degraded as incoming migrants place additional stress on existing resources.

According to the 1981 census, of the 5.92 million persons who had migrated within the country, 87.6 percent moved from rural to urban areas, while only 12.4 percent moved in the opposite direction. Over half permanently settled in cities.109 The chief forces driving such migration have been identified as:

slow progress in the agricultural sector, a decline in per capita cropped area, low crop yields due to inefficient water management practices, failure to absorb skilled labour by modern technological systems, lack of alternate employment opportunities and environmental degradation due to deforestation and desertification.110

The large rural influx has, in turn, contributed to the overburdening of urban infrastructure and urban services. There has not only been a rapid decline in the quality and availability of basic urban resources and amenities such as housing, potable water, transportation, electricity, gas, drainage and sewerage, but also a mushrooming of katchi abadis (squatter settlements), often located on the most marginal land (Table 8).

Table 8: Population Trends for Katchi Abadis (Squatter Areas) in Karachi
1970’s 1980’s Most Recent 2000
(1978) (1985) (1988) (Projection)
SQT Population 2,000,000 2,600,000 3,400,000 7,070,000
SQT Households 227,000 356,000 465,000 960,000
Source: Arif Hasan, Seven Reports on Housing: Government Policies and Informal Sector and
Community Response
(Karachi: OPP-RTI, 1992), 152.

Today, squatter settlements account for about 25 to 30 percent of Pakistan’s overall urban population. In Karachi, they comprise an estimated at 41 percent and are growing by approximately 200,000 persons per year, twice as fast as the city’s population.111 In short, rural migration has contributed significantly to urban growth and to the marginalization of those within the urban environment.

The impact of migratory movements among rural areas is somewhat less clear. Available data do not permit definitive judgments about the degree to which rural ecological marginalization has occurred. Still, in the case of tenants left land-poor or landless as a result of the green revolution, data do support the conclusion that they have suffered a decline in real income and in the quality of their diets.112 It is also clear that in addition to their migration into cities and towns, some supplemented their incomes by undertaking wage labor on neighboring farms.113 In short, data support the conclusion that resource capture prompted some decline in the living standards of affected rural groups.

Social Impacts of Environmental Scarcity in Pakistan

The effects of environmental scarcity, resource capture, and ecological marginalization have been wide-ranging. Most notably, they have: constrained agricultural productivity; exacerbated rural poverty and helped cause large waves of migration; contributed to widespread urban decay; and hindered economic growth and disrupted legitimized and authoritative institutions and social relations in the society.

Agricultural Production

Notwithstanding marked industrial growth over the past two decades, agriculture remains an important sector of Pakistan’s economy, contributing 23 percent to GDP, employing roughly 51 percent of the labor force, and generally supporting about 70 percent of the country’s total population (either directly or indirectly).114 Total agricultural output has been rising at an average of 4 percent per annum since the beginning of the green revolution in the 1960s – a rate that exceeds average population growth.115

Still, as noted above, there has been a general decline in the country’s agricultural resource base. Uncertain and variable water supplies affect agriculture. The majority of irrigated lands suffer from some degree of waterlogging and salinization, which causes the loss of about 40,000 hectares of irrigated lands each year; a total of 5.7 million hectares (well over one-quarter of all agricultural lands in the country) are salt affected.116

Food production has increased 50 percent over the past 20 years, yet the area under cultivation has risen 8 percent. This differential indicates a marked increase in the intensity of Pakistani agriculture: higher productivity has come from irrigation, fertilizer, pesticides, the introduction of new crop varieties, and changes in cropping practices. Although there is still significant potential for further improvement in yields (Table 9), the country’s food supply remains highly dependent on good harvests rather than on any institutionalized process of technical change, and it is therefore vulnerable to sharp downturns.117 Furthermore, many of the improvements in agriculture are not distributed equally throughout the country (for example, extension services in the mountains are weak).

Table 9: Yield Gap of Various Crops in Pakistan: Average v. Potential Yield
Commodity Potential Yield Average Yield Yield Gap Unachieved Potential
(Kilograms per Hectare) (Percent)
Wheat 6,425 1,695 4,730 74
Paddy 9,489 1,703 7,786 82
Maze 6,944 1,272 5,672 82
Sugar Cane 256,000 35,672 220,328 86
Rape & Mustard 2,743 641 2,102 77
Potato 38,128 10,403 27,725 73
Source: G.R. Sandhu, Sustainable Agriculture: A Pakistan National Conservation Strategy Sector
(Karachi: IUCN-World Conservation Union, 1993), 3.

Meanwhile, fragmentation of landholdings due to rapid population growth and prevailing laws of inheritance is continuously reducing the efficiency of small farms. Indeed, while total cropland increased from 14.6 million to 20.6 million hectares between 1947 and 1987, per capita cropland declined from 0.44 to 0.2 hectares during the same period. At present rates, cultivable land per person could drop as low as 0.08 hectares within 40 years.118 By 1988, largely as a result of these problems, Pakistan’s National Commission on Agriculture was reporting a steady decline in farm yields and a rising tendency among the rural population to farm marginal land.119

More recently, the final report of the Pakistan National Conservation Strategy claims that per capita agricultural growth is currently stagnating.120 While increases in agricultural inputs can compensate somewhat, sharply diminishing returns to land are ultimately unavoidable.121 As population increases, greater demands will be placed on the finite resource base. In the absence of major change, the report argues, economic growth is bound to suffer and food deficits are likely to threaten a number of regions – most notably, sandy deserts, the western dry mountains, and barani (rainfed) areas.122

Rural Poverty and Migration

Constraints on agricultural productivity contribute to rural poverty and unemployment. Despite the fact that over 70 percent of all rural households are classified as agricultural, many do not earn enough income to meet their basic needs. In 1981, a study of agriculture in Punjab found that one-quarter of all small farmers (who make up the majority of all farmers in the province) were forced to supplement their agricultural earnings by other means.123 Other sources have reported that rural underemployment approaches 60 percent nationwide.124

Accompanying such problems is a marked lack of basic infrastructure and human services. Less than one-third of the country’s 45,000 villages have access to wholesale trading centers through a network of all-weather roads.125 Access to education is lower in rural than in urban areas, fertility rates are slightly higher, and cases of undernutrition among children are more widespread.126 Only 17 percent of the rural population have access to potable water, a full 95 percent obtain some portion of their water supply from groundwater, and only 4 percent of the population have access to sewerage and drainage facilities.127 Although these deficiencies promote disease, hospitals and other health centers are sorely lacking: there are only 455 health centers to service the approximately 70 percent of the total population (about 89.5 million people) who live in rural areas.128 Not surprisingly, the rural mortality rates are higher than urban rates.

The poor quality of rural life encourages a heavy movement of migrants from rural to more prosperous urban areas. Much of the migration has been from the north; particularly from the NWFP to Karachi, but the large industrial cities of Punjab also draw workers: migrants from economically stressed areas such as Peshawar, Malakand, Rawalpindi, and Sargodha are especially prevalent (Table 10).129

Table 10: Rural-Urban Migration by Province of Origin and Province of Destination (percentage of rural-urban migratory movment, 1972-79)
Province of Origin Province of Destination TOTAL
Punjab Sind NWFP Baluchistan
Punjab 52.0 13.8 5.1 1.8 72.6
Sind 3.1 3.1
NWFP 4.7 10.4 7.0 0.3 22.4
Baluchistan 0.6 1.3 1.9
TOTAL 56.7 27.8 12.1 3.4 100.0
Source: S. Akbar Zaidi, “The Economic Bases of the National Question in Pakistan: An
Indication,” in Regional Imbalances and the National Question in Pakistan, ed. S.A. Zaidi (Lahore:
Vanguard Books, 1992), 111.

These migrants are usually young adult males in search of improved economic opportunities for themselves and their families. Their absence often serves to deepen rural poverty. The loss of healthy, able-bodied youth reduces agricultural productivity by placing increased demands on those who remain (women, children, and the aged). Gains in rural household income due to remittances from migrants tend to be directed toward increased consumption rather than investment in capital. The result is often greater awareness of a more affluent urban lifestyle, yet lingering rural impoverishment.

Urban Decay

Urban growth has been staggering, averaging from 4 percent to almost 5 percent per year in most major cities (Table 11); such rates imply a doubling time for urban population of between 14 and 18 years. Over the past decade, some of the influx has been produced by the entry of about 3 to 3.5 million Afghan refugees into the country (as a result of the Afghan War) and the return of over 1 million Pakistani workers from the Middle East. Still, the majority of migration emanates from rural areas within the country, accounting for a full 22 percent of total urban growth.130

Table 11: Rural and Urban Population Size and Rates of Growth: 1951-1991
Year Total Population Average Growth Rate Urban Population Intercensal Urban Rural Population Growth Rate Intercensal Growth Rate
(1,000) (Per Annum %) (1,000) (Per Annum %) (1,000) (Per Annum %)
1951 33,370 1.8 3,109 4.1 27,487 1.4
1961 42,880 2.4 9,655 4.8 33,324 1.8
1972 63,309 3.6 (3.0b) 16,594 4.8 48,727 2.6
1981 84,254 3.1 23,841 4.4 60,412 2.5
1991 (Esta) 108,909 2.9b
1991 (Estb) 114,333 3.1c
a The Intercensal rate of growth of 3.6 percent assumes no undercount in the 1961 census. The rate of 3.0 percent assumes an undercount of 7.5 percent.
b NIPS estimate.
c Population Census Organization/NEMIS projection.
d Document of the World Bank. Report No 7522-PAK. Table 5.2.
Source: Lee L. Bean, “Growth Without Change: The Demography of Pakistan,” in Contemporary Problems of Pakistan, ed. J. Henry Korson (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1993), 21.

Along with already high natural growth, such migration has placed enormous demands on urban infrastructure, facilities, and services. Invariably, however, municipal institutions cannot accommodate these needs. In particular, there has been insufficient investment capital to meet the absorption costs of the rapidly growing population. According to Syed Ayub Qutub, the investment resource pool generated by Pakistan’s recent annual 6 to 7 percent GNP growth covers only 28 to 32 percent of urban investment requirements. With capital investment per capita likely to remain low, and with trends indicating that over three-fifths of future Pakistani population growth will occur in urban areas, an increase – absolute and proportionate – in unserviced urban populations is inevitable.131

Evidence of Pakistan’s inability to cope with the “urban explosion” is abundant. In Karachi, while population rises at 6 percent per annum, far above the current national rate of 3.1 percent, urban services expand by only 1.2 percent.132 Housing for low-income groups has become a major problem, with the government able to meet only about one-eighth of demand. Meanwhile, an informal system of illegal occupation and subdivision of state land for sale to low-income families has developed. The uncontrolled growth often encroaches on valuable agricultural land and the plant and animal life inhabiting it. While Lahore and Faisalabad had several tracts of good agricultural land 25 years ago, there is now no arable land within their city limits.133 Similarly, the city of Peshawar has lost over 2,700 hectares of agricultural land to urban users over the last 20 years.134

Acute shortages of electricity and water are pervasive in Karachi, and sanitation services are often nonexistent. In 1983, per capita water consumption stood at approximately 80 liters per day – a level well below international standards.135 Only 40 percent of all households received piped water, usually for only a few hours a day. Others were served either by standpipes (about one pipe per 270 persons) or purchased water from tankers.136 And one-fifth of all households had sewerage connections.137

The Karachi Electric Supply Corporation generates over 1,700 megawatts against a peak demand of approximately 1,450 megawatts, yet the city faces constant electricity shortages due to a decaying distribution system and inadequate maintenance.138 Theft rates have been reported to be as high as 20 percent.139 And in the absence of additional generation capacity, the corporation anticipates a net shortfall of over 1,200 megawatts by the year 2000.140

Karachi and Islamabad are the only two cities in Pakistan possessing sewage treatment plants and these facilities are overtaxed. In Karachi, only 15 to 20 percent of sewage is treated, while the rest flows directly into the sea. Similarly, only 33 percent of the city’s solid waste is transported to dump sites; the remaining refuse is picked over by scavengers in the streets.141 Waterborne illnesses due to poor sanitation account for 25 to 30 percent of total cases in public hospitals and dispensaries nationwide and for an estimated 40 percent of deaths.142

Industrial pollution of water and air from chemical plants, cement factories, and the like poses additional hazards. In Karachi, industrial activities result in high concentrations of metals, metal salts, bacteria, acids, and oils in bodies of water and their surrounding lands. Tests also show industrial contamination of seawater.143 Studies indicate that in Punjab, large segments of the population are suffering from respiratory ailments and eye problems due to air pollution, and plant and crop damage is evident as well.144 A growing number of automobiles, along with widespread burning of solid wastes for heating, lighting, and disposal, compounds this pollution problem (solid waste is one of the nation’s chief fuels). According to the final report on the Pakistan National Conservation Strategy, “the average Pakistani vehicle emits 20 times as much hydrocarbons, 25 times as much carbon monoxide, and 3.6 times as much nitrous oxide in grams per kilometer as the average vehicle in the United States.”145

Quantitative studies of the economic impact of this pollution are rare, yet, based on evidence from other developing countries, there are strong grounds to assume that the costs are large, in terms of both labor productivity and income. In India, for instance, waterborne diseases alone are responsible for the loss of some 73 million workdays annually; the cost in medical treatment and lost production is estimated at US$600 million per year. A comparative study of health and economic output across 22 African, Asian, and Latin American nations has found that the influence of health on economic output is quite high relative to other factors, including agricultural production.146 Pollution also has indirect costs; in particular, it boosts the expenditure of time and energy required to secure clean services. The search for adequate water supplies and sanitation facilities reduces the resources and labor available for activities that increase economic output and earnings.147

Economic Decline and State Weakness

Reduction of crop yields due to water, soil, and air pollution; loss of agricultural land resulting from salinization, waterlogging, erosion, and urban expansion; nutrient loss stemming from erosion and deforestation; loss of hydroelectric power owing to the siltation of reservoirs; and loss of timber due to poor harvesting practices all inevitably reduce an economy’s capacity to produce wealth.148 These economic effects weigh disproportionately on already marginal regions and groups.

Financial and political demands on government increase. Resource scarcities raise the demand for compensating industry and infrastructure and for aid to affected marginal groups, especially rural-urban migrants. At the same time, scarcity-induced reductions in economic productivity can restrict state revenues. A widening gap between demands upon the state and its capacity to meet these demands can, in turn, progressively weaken the state.149

Scarcity & Economic Vulnerability. In general, aggregate growth of Pakistan’s economy appears strong: annual GDP has climbed by more than 6 percent in real terms for most of the 1980s and early 1990s.150 A marked expansion in industrial activity has been key to this growth. Industry today accounts for 27 percent of total GDP and has registered annual growth rates of 9 percent over the past decade.151 Meanwhile, agriculture and services have registered average growth rates of 4 and 7 percent respectively; the former now accounts for 23 percent of GDP.152

Nevertheless, these aggregate statistics mask serious structural weaknesses in the economy – weaknesses that are aggravated by environmental scarcities and that have disproportionate effects on poorer segments of Pakistan’s population. Ownership of land and industrial wealth is highly concentrated and relatively free of direct taxation. Industry tends to be capital- rather than labor-intensive; in fact, manufacturing has registered a net decline in its contribution to employment over the past 25 years.153 Meanwhile, agriculture continues to employ over half the workforce, it contributes a substantial part of manufacturing value added (for example, textile industries often draw their raw material from the agricultural sector),154 and it accounts for 70 percent of exports.155 In sum, a significant portion of Pakistan’s population and economy remains strongly tied to the country’s resource base.

The average annual rate of increase in agricultural production has been only slightly greater than annual population growth. According to the report on the Pakistan National Conservation Strategy, the inadequate performance of Pakistan’s agricultural sector has already forced the importation of food grains worth millions of rupees annually, severely straining the national treasury.156 Similarly, Pakistan’s 1991 report to the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development notes that because large increases in irrigation cropland are now unlikely, “it will be difficult for crop production to keep pace with population growth in future.” Consequently, serious food shortages over the next two decades ” cannot be ruled out.”157

Problems with the country’s power sector have caused substantial economic losses. As of late 1994, the country’s total installed electrical capacity was 10,586 megawatts, with chronic shortages of about 2,000 megawatts. These shortages have resulted in loadshedding during the summer dry season, costing the economy an estimated $950 million annually.158 Transmission losses and theft are currently estimated at over 12 percent of power capacity nationally and over 20 percent in some cities – a level twice that regarded as acceptable by international agencies.159

Perhaps most troubling is the growing problem of unemployment and underemployment throughout the country.160 At one time, the export of labor to the Middle East and the West, and generous aid packages from a number of foreign donors (the United States in particular), helped compensate for Pakistan’s surplus labor problem. But such opportunities are less available in the post Gulf War environment. Many people working in the Middle East returned as demand for their services contracted. Such migrants had long provided a source of valuable remittances, yet they are now a growing proportion of the unemployed.

Demands for government spending continue to grow, yet investment in development is constrained by high defense costs and Pakistan’s heavy debt load. Moreover, state revenues have not grown as rapidly as needed. In recent years, development projects for which some foreign financing has been provided have been cancelled because the state could not secure matching funds. In its search for credit, the government has crowded the private sector out of the capital market. Pakistan’s annual international debt-servicing costs amount to almost 3 percent of GNP or 23.6 percent of export receipts. Tighter conditions on loans from international lending agencies are restricting foreign borrowing.

In short, despite apparently robust aggregate economic growth, the current pattern of Pakistani economic development reinforces impoverishment for the majority of the population and an increasing polarization of society into rich and poor. The benefits of Pakistan’s development are not widely shared – a situation unlikely to change in the near future – and most Pakistanis remain highly dependent on a limited, and ever more fragile, resource base.

State Weakness. Alongside signs of growing economic trouble and societal polarization are signs of increasing weakness of the Pakistani state. Nowhere is this weakness more obvious than in the nation’s cities. In Karachi, government has literally lost control over the management of housing allocations, land taxes, and policing. The urban land market in the city is unique. Approximately 80 percent of Karachi’s land is owned by the government. These lands are often under long-term lease and managed by various governmental agencies. Yet despite large-scale public ownership, many serviced sites developed by the Karachi Development Authority have been sold to investors at well below market value.161 Moreover, while restrictions govern the number of plots that can be individually owned, these rules are circumvented with relative ease. The result is widespread speculation and rent seeking, much to the benefit of the rich.162 An estimated 5 square kilometers of serviced land in the center of the city lie vacant due to speculation, while surrounding areas are packed with slums. Only middle- and high-income groups can afford good housing, while those of lower income encroach on public land.

The city’s tax base is very narrow. In 1987-88, property taxes accounted for only 10 percent of government receipts. More than half of all properties were not taxed;163 assessments on those that were taxed were invariably badly outdated. Public services, however, are heavily subsidized and underpriced, which increases rural-urban migration and causes demand for these services to rise.

Nor have urban governments proved themselves capable of coping with the violence that plagues Pakistani cities. Police lack the equipment and expertise to conduct effective investigative work. According to Jamiel Youssef, head of a civilian committee that liaises with the Karachi authorities, “the Karachi police have no fingerprinting facility, no computerized national data system for criminal records, and . . . [outmoded] ballistic and forensic equipment.”164

Some experts insist that the main problem is corruption. In certain areas of Karachi, police connections to organized crime are so tight that residents feel they cannot report criminal acts or injustices they witness. The police often use the people they detain to extort money from anxious relatives; the “cash value” of a suspect is determined by such factors as ethnicity, family wealth, and possible family connections to the administration and pro-government politicians.165

Increasingly, in fact, state power has been eclipsed by a “parallel government” composed of heavily armed, organized criminal elements, capable of holding legitimate authorities at bay with force and bribes. In urban areas, local crime syndicates have often proved more adept than local authorities at managing some neighborhoods, offering individuals access to shelter, security, and employment that the state cannot match. During the mid-1980s, in Orangi Township, Karachi, crime bosses even threatened to orchestrate ethnic riots if local authorities attempted to launch raids against their drug operations.166

Rural areas have fared little better. Rather than place their trust in local authorities, large landowners have long employed security staffs to guard their holdings against encroachment by covetous neighbors. Such staffs are often tempted to exploit their power for additional profit – frequently at the expense of other landholders. Recent years have witnessed a marked rise of lawlessness in Sind, the NWFP, and Baluchistan.

The Tando Allahyar region of Sind provides a vivid example of the government’s inability to ensure law and order. Located some 150 kilometers northeast of Karachi, this region is one of the most fertile areas of the country. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, organized gangs of armed bandits literally held it for ransom. Largely composed of migrants from the barren and resource-scarce northern regions of Sind, the gangs formed a federation that acted to gather and disseminate information concerning planned raids by law enforcement agencies and to divide the region’s spoils among themselves.

Each time a new crop was harvested, the gangs descended on farmers for protection money. Those who refused to pay were subject to abduction or the destruction of their crops and electricity transformers. Enforcement agencies were unable to protect the rural population. At times, victims failed to register complaints with authorities because they did not trust the police. Only direct involvement by the army restored order.167 Still, many of the gangs have not been eradicated, and recent incidents of violence in rural Sind indicate a resurgence of their activity.168

Such intimidation not only shakes government legitimacy but also produces a climate unfavorable to investment and the generation of economic growth and tax revenues. The financial resources upon which the state can draw to address the demands of its growing population are further constrained. Many landlords have moved to cities, forcing down agricultural harvests, and large numbers of entrepreneurs have deserted Sind Province entirely.

Urban violence has had similar effects. Noteworthy are the severe economic consequences of turmoil in Karachi, which is Pakistan’s largest city, premier industrial port, and home to more than 65 percent of its industry and 80 percent of its finance. In 1987, political violence closed the port and industrial areas for days. Businesses closed down, industrialists fled to the north, and unemployment soared.169 According to John Adams, the violence, curfews, and plant closings cost the economy an estimated $175 million in the early part of the year alone.170 In December 1994, the army’s withdrawal from Karachi caused a 207-point drop in the Karachi Stock Exchange Index (about 15 percent of the total value of the exchange), and U.S. and Japanese companies pulled their executives and their families out of the city. More recently, industry sources claimed that armed violence along with a three-day general strike resulted in the loss of $260 million in revenue and left potential investors reluctant to even visit the city.171

The economic impact of Karachi’s civil strife extends far beyond the city itself. Businesses have suffered nationwide. Fan manufacturers in Gujrat anticipate a 25 percent drop in sales largely due to the market shutdowns caused by turmoil in Karachi in 1995.172 Textile manufacturers in Multan and Faisalabad have reported rising difficulties in recovering payments from Karachi traders due to falling sales in the city, and businessmen in the NWFP expect problems from a large influx of unemployed youth returning to the region in the wake of layoffs from Karachi factories.173

Environment, Population, and Violent Conflict

Environmental scarcities and the processes accompanying them are encouraging the violent expression of long-standing ethnic, communal, and class-based rivalries in Pakistani society. As resource scarcities mount grievances rise, especially across existing social cleavages within society; at the same time, the capacity of the state to address these grievances and to prevent violent challenges to its authority is diminished.

Scarcity and Rural Conflict

Developments in the country’s rural areas suggest that growing deprivation among particular groups has caused an increase in violence over the last decade. Environmental pressures have played a significant role in generating the grievances behind this conflict.

The bandits (or “dacoits”) of rural Sind are a case in point. Although banditry has a long history in Pakistan, the 1980s witnessed a sharp increase in the frequency and scope of this activity.174 It was no longer the vocation of a few isolated individuals but rather involved organized gangs that were increasingly capable of eluding punishment by local authorities. The bandits are mostly migrants from the barren northern regions of Sind; many were once sharecroppers, but they lost their livelihoods because of multiple economic problems.

According to Christina Lamb, members of one group of bandits – operating in and around the forest of Dadu – describe their actions as driven by “a combination of the feudal system, unemployment and the difficulty of eking a living from the unforgiving land through which salinity is creeping like a white plague, rendering thousands more acres uncultivable each year.”175

The bandits place their criminal activities in a context of revolt against a landed elite whose control over resources has combined with severe resource scarcity to threaten the livelihood of rural laborers. In other words, supply, demand, and structural scarcities conjoin to increase grievances and violence in rural areas.

Less obvious is the violence among tribal groups in the forest regions of the NWFP. The actions of the timber mafia have not only marginalized indigenous groups, but also produced conflict between haves and have-nots in forest areas. Growing protests from those threatened by the unchecked exploitation of the forests have led to reprisals by profiteers. Although widespread conflict has been avoided, incidents occur regularly.

Scarcity and Urban Violence

Urban violence represents the predominant form of civil strife in Pakistan today. There are many causes of this violence, and they are rooted in the particular configuration of geographical, economic, ethnic, and political forces shaping each city. Nevertheless, the rural-urban migration partly induced by rural environmental scarcities has worsened grievances among rival groups and classes in the cities. In combination with weakening state institutions, these rising grievances have raised the likelihood of violence.

High natural population growth and a rapid influx of migrants have pushed diverse and contending societal groups into close contact. Inequalities among economic classes and ethnic groups are therefore more obvious than would be the case in rural areas, and these inequalities are exacerbated by competition for exceedingly limited urban resources. The result is greater group affiliation and cohesion and violence along predominantly ethnic and class-based lines.176

Karachi exhibits these processes. While the Muhajirs continue to run much of the city’s business and industry, they face increasing competition from other groups – for example, Punjabis. Pathans make up the majority of the working class and have gained a virtual monopoly over Karachi’s transport sector. Retaining deeply rooted tribal traditions and support systems, they are in effect a separate state within the city. Meanwhile, the Sindhi minority has kept its dominance of provincial government and educational institutions through a system of quotas.

Rivalries among these groups are long-standing and flow largely from the relative position each group occupies and each group’s efforts to maintain, if not improve its status. The city’s high urban growth rate – about three to four hundred thousand persons per year – has accentuated these conflicts. Local government is characterized by murky lines of authority, few taxing powers, rampant corruption, and little accountability.177 It lacks the capacity and basic institutions needed to accommodate the demands of an expanding, diverse, and quarrelling Karachi population. With institutionalized and peaceful channels of action on grievances unavailable, government legitimacy has plummeted. Popular loyalties and allegiances remain local, and efforts to redress grievances often take the form of ethnic and class-based violence. Such violence has been on the rise (Table 12).

Table 12: Trends in Violent Crimes in Karachi 1990-94
Nature of Crime Year
1990 1991 1992 1993 1994
Murder 584 466 387 365 1,113
Attempted Murder 1,035 814 672 646 1,069
Serious Injury 501 372 414 465 502
Kidnapping 572 352 373 345 276
Armed Robberies 2,557 2,483 2,211 2,191 1,464
Vehicle Snatching at Gunpoint 676 524 965 1,060 1,177
Source: Methab Karim, “Deaths Due to Violence in Karachi, Pakistan: Patterns, Differentials and
Their Impact on the Community,” p. 3.

At times, an isolated, seemingly chance incident – for example, a traffic accident or a breakdown in services – serves to ignite turmoil. The cause of the mishap is attributed to a particular community and quickly escalates into a spiral of retaliation among contending ethnic groups. For instance, minibus accidents have sparked ethnic riots, owing to Pathan dominance of Karachi’s transport sector. Fights between residents and an underfunded police force are also common; the fact that the police are heavily drawn from the northern provinces heightens ethnic tension. In one incident, the death of a Muhajir student triggered a succession of clashes between Muhajirs, police, and transporters that lasted over a month. By the time the situation was brought under control, over 40 had died and hundreds had been wounded in clashes.178

Frustration stemming from the lack of urban services in poorer areas of the city also prompts violence. Attacks on the offices of the Karachi Electric Supply Corporation and the Karachi Water and Sewage Board are common. In summer 1994, the city’s overloaded electricity distribution system broke down – leaving entire areas of Karachi in darkness. But fear of violence deterred repairmen from providing help. Demonstrations against power shortages were organized. And in July 1994, violence erupted as police opened fire on angry crowds demanding better service.179 The scarcities and inefficiencies of a decaying urban environment may thus act as a trigger by providing a specific incident – and a ready-made pretext – for the unleashing of ethnic or class-based hatreds.

Current Trends, Future Dangers

The general climate of insecurity pervading Karachi persists. Horizontal polarization of ethnic and religious groups is unabated, as is vertical polarization by economic stratum. The city’s educational system is now crippled: some colleges have been forced to close, and others serve as armed strongholds for warring factions. Education is increasingly privatized and segregated along class lines.

Outbreaks of violence are increasingly common in Hyderabad, Islamabad, and Rawalpindi.180 Some of this violence appears to involve similar scarcities of resources. In spring 1994, water shortages in Islamabad produced widespread protest, the hijacking of water trucks by residents in harder-hit poorer districts, and violent confrontations with police.181 Moreover, in the NWFP, high natural population growth along with large influxes of Afghan refugees into such cities as Peshawar and Mingora is causing depletion of natural resources in surrounding areas and growing concern over the ability of urban infrastructure to handle the rising population. A recent report observes that in Mingora, a “shortage of basic services, narrow economic base, and bad governance have [had] visible impacts on the social fabric and [are] resulting in a steady decay of the urban environment and a growing sense of deprivation among the people.”182 This decay has bred a “highly volatile situation in and around Mingora.”183 Although widespread violence has been avoided, sporadic incidents have caused general worries about sharply deteriorating law and order.184

More broadly, there are mounting concerns over the potential for conflict arising from major development projects that promote national economic growth at the expense of local communities. A good example is the Ghazi-Barotha hydropower project. Consisting of a barrage, a power channel, and a 1,425-megawatt generating complex, the project aims to use the drop of the Indus River between the tailrace of the Tarbela Dam and the confluence of the Indus and Haro Rivers to produce electricity.185 It promises to provide a much-needed renewable and emission-free source of energy to the country.

Yet the project will also cut off almost the entire downstream flow of water for seven months of the year, reducing the quantity to less than 12 percent of the current flow in the river during the dry season.186 Environmental groups point out that planners have paid insufficient attention to the environmental, economic, and social consequences of the enterprise,187 neglecting important questions concerning the project’s impact on groundwater, on local water quality, and on a downstream population highly dependent on the river for economic and social activity.188 The project could precipitate acts of violence against authorities by people in the affected communities.189

Such events may never come to pass, and evidence of environmental scarcity contributing to conflict in urban areas other than Karachi does not necessarily imply that such conflict will reach the scale or intensity of the violence witnessed in Karachi. The particular social, economic, and political context of each case crucially determines the likelihood and severity of conflict, and environmental scarcity never represents a sole cause of conflict. In recent years a number of grassroots initiatives have emerged to provide services to communities in need. Exemplary is the Orangi Pilot Project, which has created a series of community-based organizations to improve urban services and infrastructure in Orangi Township (Karachi’s largest squatter settlement).190 Since its creation in 1980, the Project has evolved into a model of effective grass-roots development, with the community actively involved in the creation, financing, operation, and maintenance of an expanding sanitation system as well as housing, health, and welfare programs.191 The project has attracted a number of national and international donors and has led to similar efforts in other areas, including Lahore and Faisalabad.192

Nevertheless, success stories remain few and far between, and they are in part noteworthy precisely because of their absence elsewhere. At the same time, promising official initiatives, such as the Pakistan National Conservation Strategy, confront problems of implementation due to political intransigence and lack of funds. Indeed, such realities, along with trends indicating a continuation of rapid population growth, declining resources, and rising shortfalls in services, suggest that scarcity-induced conflict – both rural and urban – will persist, if not increase, in years to come.


Much of the ethnic, communal, and class-based rivalry in Pakistan is intimately linked to the state – the manner in which it has evolved and its character, policies, and practices. Following independence, the country’s leadership quickly adopted a state apparatus heavily weighted in favor of nonelected institutions and particular ethnic groups. This institutional structure, along with a pervasive lack of accountability and rampant corruption and patronage within government, progressively exacerbated regional, ethnic, class, and linguistic differences in the nation’s population.

The imperatives of authoritarian central government overrode provincial rights and regional autonomy, Punjabi interests generally eclipsed those of other ethnic groups, and government elites and their supporters continually reaped the spoils of development with little regard for the needs of a rapidly growing population. Not surprisingly, political tension – in the form of regional, ethnic, and class conflicts – has long been a feature of the nation’s landscape.

At the same time, certain characteristics of the Pakistani state worsened environmental scarcity, while others interacted with the resulting scarcities to produce resource capture, economic hardship, huge migrations of the poor from ecologically stressed rural areas into cities, and a weakening of the state’s ability to respond to these rising challenges. The result has been an increase in group-identity and deprivation conflicts.

Ethnic and group rivalries have been increasingly urbanized, and grievances and opportunities for violence have correspondingly risen. Rival groups are increasingly pushed together in an urban context, heightening chances for interaction and intensifying competition for ever-more-scarce resources. All the while, legitimate channels for the resolution and prevention of conflict have grown weaker and weaker.

A lasting solution to this tangle of problems requires fundamental reforms to the state and its policies. In their absence, environmental scarcity will worsen and civil strife will probably increase. Scarcity could eventually become so severe that the conflict and institutional breakdown it generates become self-sustaining. In that event, the regime may try to divert attention from internal crisis by exacerbating tensions with its neighbors. Long-standing regional disputes (for instance, in Kashmir) would provide a ready pretext for such behavior. The potential dangers of such a course – for regional as well as global security – would be considerable.

The Environment, Population and Security papers are maintained by the Peace & Conflict Studies Program at the University of Toronto.


*We thank the Aga Khan University, Karachi, Pakistan, and the Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI), Islamabad, Pakistan, for their support during the preparation of this study. Mohammad Tahir of SDPI provided particularly valuable comments and research assistance. We also thank David Runnalls, Tariq Banuri, Methab Karim, Francois Bregha, Roger Schwaas, Arthur Rubinoff, Iqbal Noor, John Dirks, Stephan Fuller, and Aban Marker Kabraji for additional suggestions and comments on earlier drafts.

1. Thomas Homer-Dixon, “Environmental Scarcities and Violent Conflict: Evidence from Cases,” International Security 19, no. 1 (summer 1994): 5-40; Jack Goldstone, Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1991).

2. See, for instance, Norman Myers, “Environmental Security: The Case of South Asia,” International Environmental Affairs, 1, no. 2 (spring, 1989): 138-154.

3. For further elaboration, see Homer-Dixon, “Environmental Scarcities,” 8-9.

4. See, for example, ibid.

5. Manzooruddin Ahmed, “Introduction,” in Contemporary Pakistan: Politics, Economy, and Society (North Carolina: Carolina Academic Press, 1980), 3.

6. Ibid.

7. Arthur S. Banks (ed.), Political Handbook of the World: 1994-95 (New York: CSA Publications, 1994), 661.

8. Ibid., 664.

9. Ayesha Jalal, Democracy and Authoritarianism in South Asia: A Comparative and Historical Perspective (Lahore: Sang-E-Meel Publications, 1995), 23.

10. Ibid., 49.

11. Ibid., 49-50.

12. Ibid., 141.

13. Ibid., 37-38.

14. Ibid., 54.

15. Rasaul Bakhsh Rais, “Pakistan: Hope Amidst Turmoil,” Journal of Democracy 5 no. 2 (April 1994): 134.

16. See “Pakistan: Experiments with Democracy,” for instance, ibid., 132-143. Similar optimism is expressed in Leo E. Rose, in Democracy in Developing Countries, eds. Larry Diamond, Juan Linz, and Seymour Martin Lipset (London: Adamantine Press, 1989), 2: 105-141, and Robert LaPorte Jr., “Another Try at Democracy,” in Contemporary Problems in Pakistan, ed. J. Henry Korson (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1993), 171-192.

17. Indeed, both ran afoul of President Ghulam Ishaq Khan, who, along with the army chief of staff, formed the “linchpin” of Pakistan’s military-bureaucratic state structure. See Jalal, Democracy and Authoritarianism, 110-114.

18. In this regard, Ayesha Jalal notes that political processes remain hostage to a highly inequitable state structure. Continuing imbalances within the state and between the state and civil society “foreclose the possibility of a significant reapportioning of political power and economic resources in the very near future.” See Jalal, Democracy and Authoritarianism, 121. Similar pessimism is expressed in S. John Tsagronis, Pakistan: Prospects for Democracy (Washington D.C.: Hudson Institute, December 1992).

19. Jalal, Democracy and Authoritarianism, 49.

20. William Richter, “Pakistan,” in World Encyclopedia of Political Systems, ed. George E. Debury (New York: Facts on File Ltd., 1987), 2: 839.

21. The major political parties are the Pakistan Muslim League (PML); the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), currently headed by Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto; and the Jamaat-e-Islami-Pakistan (JIP). Inter-party rivalries and splits have often led to the formation of broader coalitions. Examples include the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy (a loose coalition of forces opposing the PPP and the regime of General Mohammed Zia ul-Haq during the 1980s) and the more recently formed Islamic Democratic Alliance, led by PML majority-faction leader and former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.