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Pakistan's urbanization: 'A challenge of great proportions'

In about 10 years, nearly half of Pakistan's 188 million people are set to live in cities, compared to only a third today. Analyst Michael Kugelman talks to DW about the South Asian nation's major urban challenges.

The majority of people in Pakistan live in the countryside, with only one-third of the country's estimated 188 million inhabitants currently are in cities. But things are changing rapidly. Pakistan is urbanizing at an annual rate of three percent – the fastest pace in South Asia. The United Nations Population Division estimates that, by 2025, nearly half the country's population will live in urban areas.

By 2025, Lahore's population, currently about seven million, will exceed 10 million. Karachi's will be 19 million; it is 13 million today. But how can the country cope with such migration levels? The inadequate provision of shelter to the urban poor continues to be one of Pakistan's most immediate problems.

Michael Kugelman

Kugelman: 'The country's population size is growing at a rate of several percentage points a year - one of the fastest rates in Asia'

Moreover, the country is plagued by an energy crisis and city roads are usually congested with vehicular traffic, and transit service is unaffordable to most of the urban poor.

Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, tells DW in an interview about the main factors driving Pakistan's rapid urbanization, how this process is affecting the country's volatile security situation, and how some of the major challenges may be overcome.

DW: What are the main factors driving Pakistan's rapid urbanization?

Michael Kugelman: The chief factor is migration from rural areas. People are moving from the countryside to urban areas in droves, and for various reasons. One is to seek better livelihoods and access to (relatively) better services such as education and healthcare. Those migrating for these reasons tend to be poor and to work in professions hit hard by climate change - such as farmers and fishermen facing droughts and other water-loss problems.

A second reason for migration - one with troubling consequences for stability and security - is war and conflict. For decades, people have been fleeing war-torn rural regions -particularly the Pakistani tribal areas - to seek the relative safety of cities such as Peshawar, Quetta, and in recent years Karachi. Many of these migrating people are innocent civilians caught in the crossfire and uprooted from their homes.

Unfortunately, in recent years militants - including the Pakistani Taliban - have blended in with these fleeing civilians and come to cities as well. This is why the presence of Pakistani Taliban members has increased in Karachi in recent years.

The third chief factor for Pakistan's rapid urbanization is natural population growth. The country's population size is growing at a rate of several percentage points a year - one of the fastest rates in Asia.

What are the main challenges that go along with such a rapid level of urbanization for a country like Pakistan?

The chief one is to provide services for so many new urban arrivals. Even today, it is difficult for cash-strapped and capacity-constrained city officials to provide water, energy, housing, healthcare, and education to their growing masses. And yet with urban populations continuing to increase, this will become even harder to do - and yet the alternative is untold conditions of urban squalor, which could well lead to unrest and radicalization.

The second major challenge is security. With so many people in cities struggling to access basic services, and many unable to do so, the implications for stability are considerable. None of this is reassuring for a country with so many security problems to start with.

How can Pakistan provide affordable housing to its rapidly growing urban population?

This is truly a challenge of great proportions. One major step - which will require political will that may admittedly be lacking at the moment - is for city authorities to cut down on the speculative practices that lead large amounts of precious urban real estate to be seized by profit-minded oligarchs and industrialists. This deprives people of the space and land needed to build homes.

Another necessary reform is for the housing acquisition process to be made more streamlined and less bureaucratic. It can literally take years and years for people to go through the process of identifying a lot and getting permission to move in - such is the level of required paperwork and bureaucracy.

Families fleeing the military offensive against the Pakistani militants in North Waziristan, arrive in Bannu, located in Pakistan's Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province June 19, 2014 (Photo: REUTERS/Zahid Mohammad)

Kugelman: 'For decades, people have been fleeing war-torn rural regions to seek the relative safety of cities'

Additionally, something needs to be done about rent prices. In Pakistani cities, rentals are so expensive that most people prefer to buy a home outright - and yet the poor are often not in a position to buy a home either.

Finally, the private sector must get involved by providing capital, technological know-how, and perhaps even builders to ensure that more homes are built, and quickly.

What about the considerable urban transport challenges faced by Pakistani cities?

The first step is to address capacity constraints within city governments. There are relatively few civil servants in cities that have a background in, or knowledge of, urban transport planning. In fact, few universities even offer courses in this field. Once you have people who know the extent of the problem and how to deal with it, the situation should start to improve. The next step is to upgrade public transport.

To its credit, the current Pakistani government is already doing this, with plans to introduce new fleets of public buses and metro rail systems in some places. What is important, however, is that these new systems be affordable for the poor, and safe for commuters - especially women.

Pakistan is also plagued by a deep energy crisis. What impact is this likely to have on conditions in the ever-growing cities?

Rapid urbanization is both a blessing and a curse for growth and development. Pakistan has a flourishing yet underappreciated IT sector, and urban growth can strengthen this sector - which has urban roots. At the same time, the economy will suffer if you have a potentially large and young urban work force that can't be productive because it does not have access to water and energy and schooling necessary to keep it healthy and educated.

And, of course, when you have such a large number of people in urban areas looking for jobs, the labor market - especially one that is relatively small such as Pakistan's - will have trouble supporting it.

Pakistani soldiers patrol outside the Saint John's Cathedral Church during a Christmas mass in Peshawar on December 25, 2014 (Photo: A Majeed/AFP/Getty Images)

Kugelman: 'With so many people in cities struggling to access basic services, the implications for stability are considerable'

Could the increase in urbanization have an effect on Pakistan's volatile security situation?

Yes, and we can already see it. Among those migrating to cities from rural areas are militants displaced by fighting and military offensives in the tribal areas. Cities like Peshawar - site of the horrific school massacre on December 16 - and Karachi - where the airport was attacked earlier this year - have had a rapid growth of Pakistani Taliban entrants, and both cities have suffered attacks by the group in recent months.

Also, it is important to keep in mind that Pakistani cities are already quite unsafe, and having more people pouring into them will only make the situation more volatile. Karachi offers vivid examples. This is a city with a large though volatile ethnic mix. Many of those entering Karachi in recent years are ethnic Pashtuns, and this could exacerbate ethnic tensions in a city where the most political power is enjoyed by the MQM party, an ethnic Mohajir (migrants from India) group. There are also ethnic Punjabis and Sindhis living in the city.

Another issue is land conflict. Much of Karachi's violence can be attributed to battles for precious land (often seized for speculative purposes). With more people in the city, you will have more people scrambling for less land. As land becomes more precious, the stakes will be higher and hence battles for the land could become bloodier.

Michael Kugelman is a senior program associate for South and Southeast Asia at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars.