Why women empowerment must be a major national security goal

  • Climate change can present serious long-term challenges to state stability

  • Population growth exacerbates impact of climate change

  • Women empowerment an effective climate change risk management strategy

LAHORE: Increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events – erratic monsoons, floods and droughts, higher temperatures and water-stressed conditions, dwindling freshwater resources and waning agricultural productivity, coupled with glacial recession and sea level rise are among the difficulties Pakistan would have to face due to climate change.

Consequences of these changes are difficult to predict but potentially include higher tensions between the provinces over the distribution of water resources, climate-change-induced migration, a decline in Pakistan’s biodiversity, food/water insecurity and creation of an ideal breeding ground for anti-state militant outfits.

While Pakistan is among countries most vulnerable to climate change, limited effort has yet been taken to adapt to or mitigate against it.


A 2017 report by Germanwatch ranked Pakistan at seventh place among countries most impacted by extreme weather events caused by climate change.

The Population Time-bomb

Pakistan’s population has crossed the 200 million threshold and is expected to cross 300 million within the next three decades, becoming the fourth largest country in the world. A nation where one in four already lives below the poverty line, another 100 million, roughly half of current population, will be dependent upon dwindling natural resources within 30 years.

With climate change wreaking its havoc, consequences of this development will potentially be catastrophic if policies to manage and mitigate the risks are not immediately introduced.

Courtesy population pyramid. Based on UN data for Pakistan.

Population- Climate change nexus


Already a water-stressed country, Pakistan will suffer from acute water shortage and increasingly drought-like conditions – in addition to floods due to a glacial recession – driving internal migration and population displacement. Major urban centres like Lahore are already finding it difficult to cope with over-abstraction of groundwater resources. It is not yet clear how exactly will cities cope with water scarcity and a sharp rise in urbanisation.

Poverty, food/water insecurity, susceptibility to extreme weather events, conflict over the distribution of resources and migration/displacement can create an environment that is a hotbed for non-state activities in a poverty-stricken, multi-ethnic state such as Pakistan. Minority communities are also further likely to be sidelined under resource-scarce conditions.

“Pakistan will become a water scarce country if current levels of consumption and wastage continue,” says Leadership for Environment and Development (LEAD) Pakistan’s CEO Ali Tauqeer.
“The twin effects of climate change and population growth can create a scenario where migration/displacement leads to rapid urbanisation, slums, ghettoisation and mass poverty,” he adds.

“While the current per capita ecological footprint in the country is lower than in other countries, an increase in population means that environmental impact will experience a surge, even if per capita consumption remains relatively stable.”


At current rate, Pakistan is all set to become one of the most water stressed countries in the world within 20 years. (Bear in mind that demands placed on the environment are expected to increase due to population growth).


Pakistan’s forest cover declined from 978,655 hectares in 2000 to 525,054 hectares in 2010 (30 % canopy density)

Brown: Population density. Green: Forest cover.  Courtesy: Global Forest Watch


The following video shows all seven Special Report on Emissions Scenarios (SRES) and their impact on global wheat production. Pakistan will suffer a 5-10 per cent decline in wheat yield (country’s staple food source) by 2050. Trends are also similar for other food sources, with an Asian Development bank (ADB) report estimating rice productivity at 55 per cent and wheat productivity at 24 per cent of world averages. One shudders to imagine social consequences of food insecurity and population growth.

Courtesy: CIESIN/ Columbia University, NASA.



National Security Implications

A 2016 report by Population Matters ranked Pakistan among the top 20 countries currently in Overshoot i.e. where the population’s demands from the environment are in excess of its provision capacity. Pakistan’s standing on the Environmental Performance Index (EPI) also declined to 169 in 2018 from 148 in 2014.

Adding climate change and population growth to the image paints a stark and frighteningly bleak picture.


Conflict over the distribution of resources such as food and water are economic problems but can quickly morph into ethnic, racial or religious issues whereby markers of social identity are used to discriminate or exercise violence against groups of people. 


While socio-political events are complex and caused by multitudinous factors, climate change can act as a “threat magnifier” whereby manageable problems become profoundly difficult to engage. An example of this happened in Syria where between 2006 and 2011, poor agricultural yield coupled with the impact of drought on livestock forced millions to migrate to urban areas. Social, political and international factors then contributed towards a devastating civil war that has so far cost half a million lives and ravaged the entire country.


Image credits: adelphi


The war in Yemen, the emergence of Boko Haram in Nigeria and ISIS in Iraq/Syria has also seen climate change playing an amplifying role. The impact of climate change and population growth should therefore be seen as a major national security threat in Pakistan.

In Pakistan’s case “rapid rural to urban migration can cause an increase in social strife, conflict and crime,” says Ali Tauqeer.

“Since population is a major factor in environmental impact and resource demand, population control is among the most effective strategies for climate change risk management,” he adds.


Women empowerment connection


Pakistan’s roughly 2 per cent population growth rate is significantly higher than regional or world averages. Source: World Bank

Fertility rates show a similar trend, standing close to 3.5. A fertility rate of 2.1 is known as “Replacement-level fertility” where population levels remain roughly stable. The fertility rate has a direct bearing on population growth.

Contraceptive prevalence rate is dismally low at 30 per cent, lower than regional or global rates. Low contraceptive prevalence rate is correlated with a higher fertility rate and consequently higher population growth rate.


Secondary school enrollment for women. Pakistan lags at roughly 40 per cent (net value). Female education enrollment (primary to tertiary) is correlated with a lower fertility rate, a higher prevalence of contraceptive use and therefore lower population growth rate.


Studies across the world have consistently shown a causal relationship between female education, access to family planning services and lower population growth rates. While education is not the only factor that influences fertility rates, longer enrollment rates allow women to delay marriage, be more informed about and feel confident about using contraception, have a higher say in the family planning process, be more likely to participate in the labour market and contribute to better child health/education. Female education can also help dampen the poverty rate, another cause behind the preference for larger families, as employment leads to higher household income. When women have the freedom and the information to choose, they almost always opt for smaller families.

Given how climate change-population nexus can potentially have devastating economic, social, political and national security implications for Pakistan in the decades to come if current trends continue, curtailing population growth is perhaps one of the most effective strategies the country can pursue to deal with threat management and adaptation. In this regard, women empowerment — improved access to family planning services, education and labour market can act as a powerful and relatively cost-effective method in pursuing sustainable development and countering latent national security threats.

Keeping aside the moral responsibility of the state, the civil society and ordinary citizens in supporting women empowerment, it is now an urgent necessity for the sake of national stability and must be pursued in tandem with other risk management strategies.


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