Does Population Growth Imperil National Security?

With the economy shrinking, national security is bound to be significantly impacted by the country's rapidly rising population. Policymakers would do well to put in place the infrastructure to help us understand the magnitude of the population challenge.

Does Population Growth Imperil National Security?

It has become fashionable in Pakistan’s political circles to speak about the link between the country's exponential rate of population growth and national security. Ministers, bureaucrats and senior officials are often seen addressing gatherings on population planning and, in their speeches, seek establish a simple correlation between the high rate of population growth and national security by pointing out that “unsustainable population growth could become a threat to national security.” 

These simple statements hardly explain what specific impact a high rate of population growth has on national security in a country like Pakistan, where society is highly fractured along ethnic, sectarian and political lines. Due to the paucity of academic institutions studying social, political and national security related issues in our society, the subject of impact of population growth on national security remains an understudied topic. This especially is unfortunate in the light of the fact that since the late 1990s, our society has seen the rise of military thought, which gives more weight to opinion that a major threat to Pakistan’s security emanates from internal sources. 

The era of believing that external enemies are the major source of security threat that Pakistan society faces have long past us. In this environment of perceiving existential threat from internal sources, our decision makers have been pinpointing high rates of population growth as security threats. Still, we have not gone beyond paying lip service to this issue. Nothing reflects this more than the fact that we still don’t understand at the academic, intellectual and decision-making levels how exactly population growth impacts our national security.

Pakistani society during the past 40 years has experienced a high and sinister level of violence on account of the sectarian, ethnic and political fault lines that exist in our society. There is a considerable amount of literature in the academic circles studying international security that point out violent environmental and demographic security threats (VEDS) arise when the relationship between a population, or populations, and its environment increases the risks of war, revolution, terrorism, and ethnic or other violent conflicts. Academics studying international security point out that countries with larger and denser populations appear to have more civil conflicts and greater involvement in international wars.

“In addition, the proportion of men aged 15 to 24 in the total population aged 15 and above correlates with the frequency and magnitude of wars. Countries with higher rates of infant mortality also appear to have a higher rate of revolutions and ethnic conflicts.” Scholars such as Thomas Homer-Dixon and Jessica Blitt in their study Ecoviolence (1998) point to a number of demographic variables as relevant to issues of national security. These include the “size and density of a country's population and its rate of growth; the proportion of population that is urban and the urban growth rate; the age structure of the population; the rates of internal and international migration; the internal composition of the population with regard to ethnicity, regional identity, or religion; the rates of social mobility, literacy, and education; infant mortality and life expectancy; and the distribution of income”.

The era of believing that external enemies are a major source of the security threats facing Pakistan society have long past us. In this environment of perceiving an existential threat from internal sources, our decision makers have routinely been pinpointing at high rates of population growth as security threats. 

According to a local researcher, “The population of Pakistan has increased to over 250 million in 2023, making it the 5th most populous nation in the world.”  Pakistan's population increased more than four times since its inception. During the five decades from 1950 to 2001, Pakistan’s population has increased 430 percent.  At the time of Partition, Pakistan added only one million in a year. Now every three months, another one million souls are added to the population. As per a United Nations report, Pakistan will account for the most populous country in the world by 2050, making it one of the nine countries with the highest concentration. 

According to a UNDP report from 2019, Pakistan's population is growing by one child every eight seconds and will reach 403 million people by the year 2050. Our major cities have reached a saturation point as far as population density in major urban centers are concerned. Our population is ethnically diverse, and our major cities like Karachi have been at the center of ethnic, sectarian and political violence during the past forty years—exactly the period when exponential rise in population in these urban centers took place. 

Karachi serves as a typical case study from a national security perspective—in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, the city witnessed sinister levels of ethnic and sectarian violence. Karachi also witnessed the rise of ethnicity based political parties, which demonstrated a dogged determination to achieve their political goals with the help of organized violence. This was happening at a time when we had a superpower, the erstwhile Soviet Union, knocking at our gates when it occupied Afghanistan. The region was awash with modern small weapons, which helped the rise of these ethnic and sectarian groups in Karachi. 

Unsurprisingly, Karachi's population doubled between 1975 and 1990, according to statistical data from the Government of Pakistan. With the arrival of the first decade of this century, while ethnic and sectarian violence continued, we also witnessed the rise of terror groups like Al-Qaida, ISIS and numerous lone wolf groups in Karachi. Obviously, the rise of ISIS and Al-Qaeda could not be directly attributed to the high rate of population growth. However, Karachi’s massive population gave rise to shantytowns and slums within the city, and these provided ideal hiding spaces for those who would carry out terror attacks and vanish into dark alleys of these informal settlements in Karachi city. Pakistani security forces repeatedly raided these shantytowns in order to counter the sleeper cells hiding in these slums. 

Karachi could be the most suited place to begin the study of the impact of population increase on our national security. Karachi is the financial and economic hub of Pakistan and any instability in the city could cost Pakistan dearly at the financial and economic level. It is a city with depleting resources; filth is spread across the city and hygiene is a major problem. The infrastructure is in dilapidated condition, street crimes, driven primarily by unemployment are on the rise. 

This is an ideal city for extremist groups and terror outfits. The state machinery hardly performs its functions in controlling law and order. Newspaper headlines scream about the rise in the crime rate in the city. Part of the problem is the migration from the northern parts of the country, where military operations in Pak-Afghan border areas have uprooted the tribal population and forced them to migrate to the greener pastures of the largest urban center in the country. But no less a role has been played by the exponential rate of population growth due to the high birth rate. The last five years have seen another 4.3 million souls added to the population of Karachi.

Academic studies on international security issues never remain static in terms of the conclusion they draw from specific situations. For instance, there are studies which reject the causal correlation between a high rate of population growth and national security threat a society could face. Apart from demographic change, there are other factors like conflicts in the neighboring countries (like Karachi had the Afghan conflict in its near vicinity), weak state structures and rampant poverty, which play a role in generating an internal national security threat for a society and state. 

Another grave national security problem is that the size of the economic and financial pie, which has to be divided between different segments of the society, has greatly shrunk over the years.

Another researcher points out that, “where a country's population grows faster than the government's revenues, administration and welfare provision become increasingly difficult. Criticism of the state is likely to mount along with state debts, and elites are more prone to oppose a decaying government.” This is exactly the story of Pakistan and its microcosm, Karachi. The state’s financial resources and its capacity to deliver services have dwindled substantially in the past 40 years, and yet the population continues to grow at a horrendous pace. 

Another grave national security problem is that the size of the economic and financial pie, which has to be divided between different segments of the society, has greatly shrunk over the years. And yet, the population dependent on that economic pie continues to rise – almost in perpetuity. The result is likely to be more social and political tensions and frictions, as we are witnessing in the status quo.

Our problem is that we don’t study the social and political realities that affect our daily lives. That doesn’t mean these social and political realities will stop affecting us. Our problem is that we don’t have an institutional understanding of how population growth is affecting our society or national security. We don’t have institutions which can study the impact of population growth on our national policy making processes. 

Perhaps we can start with Karachi, which is a microcosm of most of the conflicts that afflict our society. Ethnic conflict, sectarian conflict and political brawls all disturb the civic life of Karachi. This is the city which has seen an exponential rise in the population growth rate—part of population increase is because of migration, but a high birth rate is also a major factor. 

In the process of writing this piece, I scanned through the literature on the violence in Karachi, and have not come across a single article on how the increase in the population has contributed to the conflicts that afflict Karachi. What a pity. We should focus on the population bomb before it is too late, and our other major cities experience the same level of overpopulation, and resulting social and political conflicts.

The writer is a journalist based in Islamabad.