High fertility concerns post-floods —Murtaza Haider
With fortunately a low death count, the 2010 floods would still result in a higher fertility rate, given the very large displaced population. If not addressed in the post-disaster planning, higher fertility will result in multiplying the rebuilding needs in the next few years
As Pakistan plans to transition from rescue to rebuilding after the disastrous floods that have killed 1,600 and destroyed over 1.3 million homes, it should also pay attention to the expected higher than usual fertility rates, which are often observed after similar calamities in low-income economies.
The struggle to rehabilitate over 20 million people will be a monumental task. However, this will become even a bigger challenge for the state and the affected households if, during the next couple of years, higher than usual fertility rates deliver more souls to care for in an increasingly food-insecure society.
Jocelyn Finlay of Harvard University, in a recent paper published by the World Bank, shows that higher than usual fertility rates were observed after devastating earthquakes in Pakistan (2005), Gujarat, India (2001), and Izmit, Turkey (1999). Her analysis showed that post-disaster fertility was higher than the one observed when children die in non-disaster conditions. Epidemiologists call this the replacement effect when parents produce another child after the death of an offspring.
With fortunately a low death count, the 2010 floods would still result in a higher fertility rate, given the very large displaced population. If not addressed in the post-disaster planning, higher fertility will result in multiplying the rebuilding needs in the next few years, putting enormous pressure on already scarce resources.
At approximately four births per woman, the fertility rate in Pakistan is already very high and is going to double Pakistan’s population by 2050. At the same time, the natural and other endowments required to sustain such population growth are missing in Pakistan, which is likely to cause massive increases in poverty, disease, and violence.
While the state has struggled to limit population growth, the religious establishment in Pakistan has always opposed family planning. At the same time, the very poor in Pakistan do not have the means or the awareness to practice family planning. Furthermore, very low-income households consider large numbers of children an insurance against future shocks to income and expect the children to work when illness or injury prevents the breadwinner from working.
The stance of the religious establishment on family planning in Pakistan is without merit. Consider that the fertility rates in Saudi Arabia and Iran, the two primary religious influences on Pakistan’s Sunni and Shiite schools of thought, are lower than that of Pakistan. While mullahs in Pakistan have thwarted the state’s attempts to lower fertility rates, Saudi Arabia and Iran have lowered their fertility rates at much faster speeds in the past three decades than Pakistan. The average number of births per woman in Saudi Arabia declined from over seven children per woman in 1982 to just over three in 2008. In Iran, the same rate dropped from 6.6 births per woman in 1982 to 1.8 births in 2008. Furthermore, how would one explain the much steeper decline in fertility rate in Bangladesh, which until 1973 was part of Pakistan, and continues to be exposed to frequently occurring natural disasters, including floods. The fertility rate in 1974 in Bangladesh was 6.83 births per woman against 6.96 in Pakistan. By 2008, it had declined to 2.34 births per woman in Bangladesh, a staggering 41 percent lower than that of Pakistan.
The reason for this dramatic decline in fertility rates in Bangladesh, Iran and Saudi Arabia is improved access to contraceptives for females in their childbearing age. Why are the mullahs in Pakistan not learning from their mentors in Iran and Saudi Arabia?
The decline in fertility is correlated with a decline in infant mortality, and an increase in longevity and prosperity (as per capita gross national income). Fewer births per woman result in healthier infants and mothers, thus increasing the chance of infants to survive beyond the age of one. Higher birth rates deteriorate women’s health, especially in scenarios of low-caloric intake, and thus lead to higher infant mortality.
In the next few years, billions of dollars in Pakistan will be spent on agriculture, education, health, infrastructure, and shelter to help rebuild the lives and livelihoods of the flood-affected households. It will be prudent for the planners to try to prevent higher than usual fertility, which has known to occur as a response to natural disasters. Even in the absence of natural disasters, the state in Pakistan has not been able to meet the growing needs of a fast growing populace. Poor and ineffective planning for post-disaster relief will make matters only worse than they already are.
The writer is a professor of supply chain management at Ryerson University in Toronto. He can be reached at email@example.com