The military offensive under way in North Waziristan has triggered a humanitarian crisis. Hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced. Many are staying in refugee camps in KP. However, if history is any guide, scores will eventually end up in Pakistani cities.

For decades, war and conflict have helped fuel the growth of Pakistan’s cities. Many of the six to eight million Indian Muslims entering Pakistan at Partition settled in urban Sindh and Punjab. In the 1980s, amid the anti-Soviet insurgency in Afghanistan, masses of Afghans ended up in Quetta and Peshawar. More recently, military offensives in the tribal belt have sparked an exodus of Pakistanis to Peshawar, Quetta, and Karachi.

Unfortunately, these new arrivals face as many problems in their adopted cities as they did in the conflict-ravaged hinterland they left behind. Media headlines focus on urban violence, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Pakistan’s Runaway Urbanisation, a new Wilson Center study, (for which I am editor and a contributor), paints a troubling picture of the country’s rapidly expanding urban spaces.

Approximately 50pc of urban Pakistanis live in slums — 95pc have no garbage collection; 6pc lack latrines. Many urban poor have access to enough water to meet only a fifth of the daily human drinking water requirement. Urban residents are highly vulnerable to non-communicable diseases. In a nation of 180 million people, they face a tight job market — one that creates less than 700,000 new jobs annually on a national level.

These urban problems are literally getting larger by the year. Pakistan’s annual urbanisation rate, 3pc, is the fastest in South Asia. Karachi’s population grew 80pc between 2000 and 2010, the largest increase of any city in the world. By 2030, Pakistan’s urban population will have grown by a projected 90pc.

One often hears that Pakistan’s population is currently about one-third urban, and will be nearly 50pc urban by 2025. Yet these numbers don’t tell the full story.

According to density-based definitions of urban, Pakistan’s urban spaces include not just metropolises, but also “ruralopolises” encompassing the eastern half of Punjab, a large area outside of Peshawar, and a triangular region connected by Karachi, Hyderabad and Thatta. Taken together with traditional cities, these areas make Pakistan’s population 65pc urban. Forget about Pakistan’s population becoming nearly half urban by 2025. Pakistan is actually two-thirds urban today.

What can be done to manage Pakistan’s burgeoning urban growth? Pakistan’s Run­away Urbanisation recommends overhauling an inefficient urban bureaucracy; passing new laws that explicitly describe how urban land is to be developed and used; redesigning cities to emphasise more vertical growth and less sprawl; allocating more resources to public transport and less to car-friendly infrastructure; and exploiting the power of technology and telecommunications to build awareness about healthier urban lifestyles.

We also call for new ways of thinking about Pakistan’s urbanisation. Urban-rural linkages must be better understood — from the reality of urban agriculture and non-farm rural sectors to the proliferation of cars and internet connections in remote areas. Additionally, policymakers should consider the experiences of other countries. In the West, city planners have concluded that suburban sprawl is untenable. African cities abound with examples of effective public transport. Latin American cities offer lessons in reducing urban violence.

Finally, we call for public-private partnerships. The public sector lacks the resources and capacity to tackle Pakistan’s urban challenges on its own. Private capital is vital. Admittedly, given its many challenges, it’s unrealistic to expect Pakistan to tackle its urban problems anytime soon. Until there is sufficient political will — that is, until there is across the board buy-in from key political stakeholders — we can’t expect much change. In essence, officials must be convinced that moving forward is necessary. On that note, it’s worth highlighting the risk of radicalisation if urbanisation goes unaddressed.

Even today, the existence of urban militancy is undeniable. Terrorism is increasing in cities; Karachi’s 2,700 casualties from violence last year marked a new record. Sectarian strife is convulsing Quetta and Peshawar. In recent years, militants have joined civilians in their migrations to cities from war-torn tribal areas. Parts of Karachi have become virtual havens for the Pakistani Taliban. Ex­­tre­­mist groups are recruiting new generations of fighters from Pakistan’s urban middle class.

And yet if Pakistan fails to cope with urbanisation on the most basic level, ie if it fails to provide basic services to its growing urban citizenry, a new generation of young people could suffer from acute privation and unemployment — a demographic primed for radicalisation. The security implications of Pakis­tan’s unfettered urbanisation are concerning, and amplify the need for immediate action.

This article originally appeared on