AFTER wavering over whether to boycott the United Nation's population conference in Cairo, Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto's decision to attend the conference was a logical one, since her country has paid such a high price for its inaction on population growth.
Like most developing nations, Pakistan's population growth rate soared in the years following World War II because improved sanitation and health-care measures increased life expectancy.
But unlike most developing nations, Pakistan has never mounted an effective family-planning program, mainly because of the opposition of the country's Muslim religious establishment.
The result: Pakistani women, less than 10 percent of whom use contraceptives, still have an average of 6.7 children - more than twice the global average. At current growth rates, Pakistan's population will double from 130 million to 260 million within the next 23 years, a prospect that all but extinguishes hope for a bright economic future.
Until now, Pakistan's sustained average economic growth of between 5 and 6 percent per year has matched the performance of such Asian ``tigers'' as South Korea and Singapore. With that kind of showing, Pakistan should have had a larger piece of the Asian economic miracle. But rapid population growth, among other factors, has robbed the Asian nation of the fruits of its success.
In South Korea, which is now heading toward zero population growth, per capita gross domestic product is nearly $1,000. In Pakistan, where the population is increasing at a much faster rate, per capita GDP is just $350, lower even than nations like Yemen and Honduras.
As one World Bank official notes: ``With half the population, Pakistan would have done twice as well.''
As for the country's economic future, limited surplus capital, scarce raw materials, an underskilled work force, and a low adult-literacy rate suggest that Pakistan would have difficulty under any circumstances creating a modern industrial economy capable of generating growth and jobs.
With such rapidly expanding numbers to feed, house, and educate, the task will be even harder. Any growth in the country's domestic product will be needed to finance government social services and will thus do little to fuel the economy or improve the quality of life.
``It means that for the foreseeable future, we will be barely able to cope with existing demands, much less bring improvements in things like health and education,'' says a former government minister and leading Pakistani expert on population.
Population growth in Pakistan has also resulted in ethnic strains and contributed to urban pressures. Karachi, Pakistan's largest city, is also one of the world's most unliveable, according to one recent survey. It is expected to grow from 8 million to 20 million within a decade, aggravating social tensions and intensifying water shortages that are already so serious that supplies are available in many neighborhoods less than one hour per day.
In rural areas, the future looks just as worrisome. The country's agricultural sector has borne the burden of supporting a national population that has increased from 33 million to 123 million since World War II. Whether it can sustain 100 million or more additional Pakistanis is questionable.
Even as demands on the land are growing, population growth and inheritance patterns have reduced the size of agricultural holdings to the threshold of economic viability or below.
Of the farmers who have not been forced to migrate to urban areas, many have overcultivated farm land or encroached on the small amount of remaining forest land to grow crops and gather wood for fuel.
One consequence has been a shrinkage of water resources - critical in a country where 70 percent of cropland is irrigated. Another has been severe soil erosion, which is one reason why the world's largest earth-filled dam and the country's largest source of hydroelectric power, the Tarbela Dam, is fast silting up.
If Pakistan cannot continue to feed its own population, higher food import bills will result, further dissipating the gains of economic growth.
Had Pakistan acted vigorously to reduce fertility to two children per woman by 2010, a target set a decade ago by the UN, its population might have peaked at about 225 million. The World Bank now projects a peak population of just under 400 million.