By 2047, Pakistan is on a stable growth path to becoming a high-income country. With the creation of smart cities, implementation of effective environmental management systems, and adoption of clean technologies, Pakistan’s sustainable economic development sets an example as a success story for others to follow. Gone are the days of dirty power plants, inefficient water distribution, and illegal deforestation. Pakistan now relies on a large share of renewable sources for power generation, on well-functioning markets to allocate water across multiple sectors, and on a strong system of rights that protects natural resources such as forests, fisheries, and wildlife.
Effective environmental management coupled with a low population growth has led to a healthy increase in the stock of natural resources and has improved the assimilative capacity of the environment. A high level of environmental quality has reduced social costs, in turn increasing net incomes and lowering income inequality. Pakistan is now a hotspot for environmental tourists, who throng here in the millions each year to witness its natural beauty, observe its thriving wildlife, breathe its clean, crisp air, and taste its pure water.
Environmental degradation has posed several challenges for the sustainable, equitable, and inclusive economic growth of Pakistan:
Though Pakistan has a vast irrigation system, poor infrastructure maintenance, low water charges, wasteful irrigation methods, and subsidies for water-intensive crops have contributed to poor water management in the country. As a result, Pakistan ranks very low in terms of agricultural water productivity and has gradually become water-stressed. Moreover, the variable supply of surface water has increased groundwater usage, leading to a gradual depletion of aquifers in the country.
Air quality levels in Pakistan remain dangerously high, well above limits prescribed by the World Health Organization. Poor air quality—primarily due to unregulated vehicular and industrial emissions—has increased the rate of premature deaths, leading to welfare losses equal to 8 percent of GDP. The lack of monitoring and enforcement make it difficult for the environmental protection department to keep ambient air quality within prescribed limits.
Several towns and villages still lack access to safe drinking water, compelling people to turn to riskier sources. The consumption of low-quality water has increased the incidence, length, and severity of waterborne diseases. The United Nations recognizes access to safe drinking water as a fundamental human right and affirms that this right is part of existing international law and legally binding upon all member nations. Guaranteeing the right to clean air and water to all citizens requires a judicious overhaul of existing policies.
Climate change has increased the risk of natural disasters (floods, droughts, and crop failures). In some areas, higher temperatures have accelerated the melting of glaciers, leading to significantly faster river flows and higher water levels. The current water infrastructure—including the storage capacity of dams and reservoirs—is insufficient to contain excess flows and to prevent spillovers onto surrounding lands. In the absence of disaster preparedness and management, flooding can cause widespread destruction of lives, crops, and infrastructure.
Receding glaciers, lighter snowpack, higher precipitation as rain (rather than snow), and early snowmelt have increased the length of dry periods and the risk of severe droughts. Limited water supplies in such conditions make it difficult for authorities to meet the demands of irrigation, drinking, and hygiene, leading to food and water insecurity. Pakistan will have to take long-term action to build resilience against the threat of severe events such as floods and droughts.
Pakistan’s efforts to improve environmental management and governance must comprise enterprising policy solutions. Policies have to be geared towards strengthening the institutional capacity of provincial governments to address local environmental problems. Establishment of well-defined property rights along with the implementation of the ‘polluter pays’ principle is a step towards efficient and cost-effective environmental management.
Creation of environmental markets aligns people and firms’ incentives with the goal of sustainability, while strong regulatory frameworks provide mechanisms for monitoring compliance and enforcing laws. Investments in new technologies—combined with Internet of Things (IoT) and Information and Communication Technologies (ICT)—and knowledge transfer programs provide the necessary infrastructure and information for strengthening environmental management.
As Pakistan approaches its centenary, it must recognize that environmental policy reform—including institutional capacity building, enabling legal frameworks, and increased public investment—is a prerequisite for growth and prosperity. Failure to address its growing environmental problems will further jeopardize the livelihood of a large proportion of its population. Moreover, meaningful reform requires a constructive dialogue between various stakeholders on key environmental issues and a consensus on the process of reform.
While people in Pakistan have a keen interest in sustainable development and environmental management, the scarcity of literature and data makes it difficult to organize an informed dialogue on these themes. Consistent engagement between students, academics, government officials and policy practitioners interested in environmental conservation and sustainability will help create inclusive policy solutions and a democratic agreement on their implementation.