COMMENT: Climate change and migration to cities

People in the twin cities of Rawalpindi and Islamabad have been experiencing daylong traffic jams since last summer because of the unfinished Rawalpindi-Islamabad Metro Bus Project.  “It took me half an hour to reach my destination on the Murree Road, which otherwise would have taken five minutes,” a colleague, who is a diehard supporter of this project, told me a few weeks ago.

Making records of deadline after deadline, the inauguration ceremony of the Rawalpindi-Islamabad Metro Bus Project has been cancelled once again. After a heavy spell of rain in recent weeks, a news report flashed up on my computer screen under the headline: ‘Heavy rain exposes poor sewerage system of Rawalpindi’. Later, I saw people roaming around on muddy roads, seeking help to unblock the sewerage system. These are just glimpses of a number of collective problems many of us face in our daily lives and have to spend a huge portion of our constructive energies to fix.

Development plans have failed to provide basic facilities in cities

The incompetence, ill-planning and the negligence of Pakistan’s political and bureaucratic elite in prioritising development plans are to blame, since they have failed to provide even the most basic civic facilities to the urban masses for the last 67 years. The 20th century’s development paradigms show that no country has ever grown from having a lower income to a middle/higher income economy sans industrialisation and urbanisation. In fact, both these indicators determine a level of progress.

Vibrant urban centres are considered to be the proxy for a country’s development, with urbanisation directly linked to an increase in the wellbeing of people in cities. An exception here is sub-Saharan Africa where the rising pace of the urban growth rate does not synchronise with the economic wealth in the region. The case of Pakistan is more or less similar to sub-Saharan Africa. With the highest pace of urbanisation growth rates among South Asian countries, Pakistan shows no consistent rise in development indicators. This unchecked rate of urban growth is putting a lot of pressure on already fragile civic facilities for communities.

‘Push’ and ‘pull’ factors

In Pakistan, an interesting factor that has failed to attract attention is internal migration from rural to urban areas. One-fifth of the urban growth rate is due to internal migration. The main forces compelling people to move are push and pull factors, which arise due to the political, environmental and economic conditions of the country, and drive migrants to move. Push factors are generally related to the place of origin – or rural areas, examples of which include poverty, illiteracy, limited economic opportunities, local conflicts, natural disasters and climate hazards.

On the other hand, pull factors are related to migrant destination – or urban areas, which attract people to certain locations. These factors include access to better economic opportunities, the provision of basic services such as education and health, living conditions, environment, sanitation, human security, and political stability.


Climate change: a cause of rural-urban migration

Climate change is also likely to lead to rural to urban migration in Pakistan. Any variations in temperature and rainfall affect agricultural productivity, and so affect rural communities and lives. Often the most attractive option for a non-resilient and marginalised rural community is migration to cities, thanks to a disproportionately high amount of the development budget being spent on urban centres, which adds to the pull factor for these migrants.

With this in mind, the multi-billion-rupee metro bus project, in classical proletariat notions, is the biggest source of livelihood for hundreds of labourers, mainly from rural areas. Yet there is no plan to absorb this labour after the mega project is finished. These people will have to look for other options to feed their families, and in the absence of any other major economic activity, they will be jobless.

Insanity, of course, is a prerequisite in the execution of development plans. The dilemma of this multi-billion-rupee project is that the construction of a mammoth facility is underway while the basic requisites for an urban society are being compromised. For example, on the Metro Bus website, the population explosions in Rawalpindi and Islamabad are described as: ‘The population has doubled in size during the last few years’. However, there are only a couple of public sector hospitals to cater to Islamabad’s burgeoning population, let alone other civic facilities like water, sanitation, education, waste management, and the environment. One could indeed go on and on about specific problems.

Stringent action needed

To keep the growth of urbanisation under check, the government needs to take some stringent measures. PRISE researchers currently studying migration to Pakistan’s cities have found that Karachi is overburdened with a population of more than 15 million, whereas the combined population of 10 smaller cities in Sindh – after Karachi and Hyderabad – is 1.7 million, around 12 per cent of Karachi’s population. The main reason behind this stark contrast lies in the income gap between rural and urban economies, which attracts a large number of migrants to cities.

The integration of the economy to bridge the regional income gap between rural and urban areas is a key development challenge. Therefore, some intermediate cities should be developed where facilities and services are interchangeable. These would then serve as pivots between large cities and rural areas.

Cattle arid

Secondly, with the much-trumpeted 18th Constitutional Amendment, the move towards greater decentralisation is expected to accelerate rural to urban migration1. This is because, in the absence of fairly elected city and district governments, it is very likely that development funds will again be routed to big cities, especially the provincial capitals, with rural areas once again missing out. Urban management, which includes public transport, master planning, housing, water, sewerage, and recreational opportunities, should therefore fall under the jurisdiction of elected city or district governments, which should then spend the allocated funds appropriately.

The perils of the informal economy

Another major challenge faced by urban management, especially for a country like Pakistan, is the absorption of most of the rural to urban migrants into the informal economy. These factors further burden urban residents as they have to pay more taxes for the services now shared by a larger number of people. Therefore, a proper system has to be introduced for tracking migrants by making registration mandatory for people migrating to urban areas.

Finally, though an increase in urbanisation is necessary for people to attain higher incomes, climate change is likely to disproportionately increase this rural to urban migration. Therefore, proper risk management systems should be introduced, where crop insurance is provided in rural areas against extreme events such as floods and heatwaves. Moreover, better basic amenities, such as education and healthcare, should also be provided at the village level.

By Fahad Saeed, Research Fellow and Climate Change Advisor for PRISE at the Sustainable Development Policy Institute

Main photo: Junaid Rao, Creative Commons License

Photos: Rajeshree Sisodia, PRISE

A version of this article was first published in the Daily Times

  1. Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency, Briefing Paper No. 39, July 2010, ‘Impact of the 18th Constitutional Amendment on Federation-Provinces Relations’

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