What is the government currently doing about Pakistan’s staggering urban challenges? Where is more work needed? Here is an overview per issue.


Pakistan faces a growing housing shortfall of approximately 4.4 million units. When provided, the quality is often substandard and low income groups receive little benefit. To redress chronic housing problems, Pakistan’s only housing policy was announced in 2002. The government’s attempt in 2005 to update the housing plan with a comprehensive policy framework remains unexecuted. Until a new, official policy is adopted and implemented, the provision of low-cost urban housing will be an elusive goal.

Local governments have a limited role in resolving the urban housing crisis. They have little control over urban land[1], a lack resources to fund schemes and are unable to borrow independently from international donors.

Many announcements of government-sponsored housing projects have made headlines (such as Ashiana[2] and Apna Ghar[3]) but remain uncompleted. The Housing and Works Ministry openly admits its failure to complete various projects. Most face bureaucratic and or administrative delays or are mired by corruption scandals and lack of political will. Where construction has taken place, low income groups have received little attention.[4] To complete one housing project, Punjab is now seeking assistance from TOKI – the Turkish Housing Development Administration. Punjab also plans to sell public land to fund low-cost housing. Several schemes are underway in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and Sindh as well but progress is slow.

The House Building Finance Company (HBFC) decided in October to extend housing finance to low and middle-income groups by introducing a new priority lending scheme. The State Bank of Pakistan has issued guidelines for housing finance. Donors like the World Bank are also stepping in to help launch innovative housing products targeting under-served communities. While partial attempts like these have been made to address housing problems,,  chronic housing shortages and poor quality remain unaddressed.

Water and Sanitation

In most Pakistani cities, water supply is limited and unsafe for drinking while access to waste management services remains poor.

A National Drinking Water Policy was announced in 2009 that promises safe and sustainable drinking water to all by 2025, and a Sanitation Policy was declared in 2006 aligning goals with the relevant Millennium Development Goal targets. Provincial commitment to ensuring water and sanitation services are formalized is seen in WASH[5] sector plans in Punjab and Baluchistan[6], sectoral roadmaps in Punjab[7] and other policy initiatives[8].

Initiatives have also been announced to improve waste disposal in urban centers. Karachi and Lahore, the two largest cities of Pakistan, have privatized garbage collection[9] with varying degrees of control at the local level[10]. Punjab plans to establish solid waste management companies across seven cities  as part of its sanitation roadmap and commence a district-level survey to earmark sites for waste disposal.

Provinces are also improving access to clean water. The Saaf Paani company is restoring non-functional water schemes in 37 rural tehsils of South Punjab and is keen to scale-up the program across all districts (rural and urban). Water quality testing is also routinely conducted in most cities by the Pakistan Council of Research on Water Resources (PCRWR). Its most recent report  estimates that 10 to 15 percent of bottled water is contaminated with excessive levels of either arsenic or sodium.[11] Most filtration plants  in cities are only capable of cleaning arsenic.

Untreated industrial and municipal waste water remains a major health hazard in cities.[12] In smaller cities, sewage treatment facilities are virtually non-existent. The situation is not much different in larger urban centers.[13]


As use of basic public health services remains low in both rural and urban areas, key health indicators among Pakistan’s urban poor are only marginally better than the rural poor.

After a hiatus of several years following the 18th amendment, Pakistan finally has a National Health Vision (NHV) 2016-2025 to help prioritize health interventions post-devolution. All four provinces have a Health Sector Strategy. Healthcare commissions are functional in each province, regulating public and private health facilities while ensuring their compliance to minimum standards.

Technology and improved data collection at both the federal and provincial levels are significantly changing health service delivery. Islamabad has a Health Policy Strengthening and Information Analysis Unit[14] to collect health data  while health information systems are functional across all provinces. The use of internet communications technology, particularly supported by the Punjab Information Technology Board (PITB), is helping improve healthcare in the province especially for controlling dengue[15] and enhancing immunization[16]. Polio cases are declining steadily as both KP Punjab have launched successful inactivated polio vaccination (IPV) campaigns.

Health insurance is big on the cards as the Prime Minister launched the first ever national health insurance scheme in Pakistan last year while KP has introduced its own program via the Sehat Insaf Card[17].

Efforts to improve tertiary healthcare, however, remain inadequate as several large-scale projects remain incomplete.[18] Provinces are now engaging with the private sector to establish modern hospitals just as several primary health care services are also being outsourced.


Pakistan’s mega urban centers like Karachi are without a mass public transport system and investments in roads in place of public transport have  led to an unregulated rise in private vehicles with fewer options of public transport for the poor.[19]

The federal government has only recently signed a two-year project to formulate the first National Transport Policy with support from the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID) and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) for a safe, efficient and sustainable transport system. Provincial governments are making significant investments in low-cost public transport. These include mass transit projects in Islamabad, Lahore, Multan, Karachi and Peshawar.[20] Specialized transport bodies such as the Lahore Transport Company, Karachi Urban Transport Corporation and Punjab Metrobus Authority are helping manage city travel. But given the transportation needs of megacities, further investment in feeder or connecting routes is required. Currently, the construction of feeder-route networks to connect to Islamabad and Lahore are in the pipeline but facing administrative delays.

Inadequate public transport has fueled a rise in private taxi services (Albayrak, Uber and Careem). New provincial regulations in Sindh and Punjab will require these services to acquire route permits, fitness certificates and be subject to taxes. Vehicle inspection regime remains weak. Punjab has taken the lead by setting up vehicle inspection and certification system centers across the province.

Pakistan’s transport sector needs to prepare for the rise in economic activity expected in urban centers following investments under CPEC. Introducing the right land-use policies and investing in low-cost public transport can help meet the likely increase in demand.


Although urban areas have better enrolment and learning outcomes, a significant number of children remain out of school.[21] The preference for private schools remains high, reflecting in part the low quality of public schooling.

The National Education Policy was announced in 2009 and provides broad goals. Provinces, responsible for education after the 18th amendment, have failed to reach a consensus on a revised policy. There are four education plans, one for each province.[22] Punjab’s expires this year and Sindh’s next year. The status of Article 25-A of the constitution that ensures the right to free and compulsory education post-18th amendment is still pending in KP, Gilgit-Baltistan and Azad-Jammu and Kashmir (AJK).

Provincial education departments are embedding education reforms within broader provincial plans. Punjab has adopted the roadmap approach for improving public schools. [23] The Schools Reforms Roadmap is based on “stock-takes” that track progress on education outcomes. Sindh and KP are implementing a similar model. The approach however varies across provinces in terms of leadership and management style. For example, progress in Punjab, unlike KP, is managed personally by the Chief Minister. This raises the question of whether centralized control is the right way to achieve outcomes as opposed to granting more responsibility at the local level.

All four provinces are now relying on technology-driven, “smart” monitoring techniques to manage the performance of public schools.[24] Provinces are also moving towards the merit-based hiring of teachers, now being recruited through rigorous testing conducted by a third-party service.

While the overall impact of these reforms is yet to be seen in terms of increased enrollment and learning outcomes, education roadmaps are helping to create a culture of evidence-based policymaking.

Land Management

Unregulated land use remains one of the top causes of ill-planned urbanization.

A policy mandate to manage urbanization has been slow to emerge at the federal and provincial levels. The need for smarter urban development first appeared at the heart of Planning Commission’s New Framework for Economic Growth in 2012. The incumbent government’s “Vision 2025” and 11th Five Year Plan (2013-18) roll out a similar agenda. Vision 2025 particularly emphasizes legal reforms for zoning, commercialization, taxation and improving urban infrastructure.

The Planning Commission recently established the Urban Planning & Policy Center to pursue smart, sustainable urban development in Pakistan. Provinces are also gearing up. The Punjab Growth Strategy endorses support for dense urban centers to attract investment and boost productivity while urban policy units in KP and Punjab are conducting research to inform urban policies. Provinces are also digitizing land records to facilitate administrative and economic decision-making and improve land allocation in urban centers.[25]

However, provinces have not designed industrial policy that looks at land usage and development of new cities[26], especially as industrial investments under CPEC are already being made[27]. While Punjab is currently identifying areas with the best potential to develop into cities and industrial estates, other provinces need to follow suit to align economically with CPEC.

What Next?

While there are many real and headline-grabbing urban initiatives (some are successful, many are not), they are not being pursued in a systematic framework for urban development. This has led to the poor prioritization of initiatives. Sensible urban development strategies are thus now essential for all provinces.

Pakistan will launch “The State of Pakistan Cities Report 2016”[28] this year to provide updated data on key urban indicators. The rollout of the population census, after a gap of 19 years, will also be very helpful. A fresh census will depict the true extent of urbanization and the size of the urban vote bank[29].

Given the size of the urban vote bank, there are political incentives to bring about sustained change. Responding to these incentives will require being guided by evidence to pursue the right development path – and learning from best local and international experience. This makes for excellent opportunities for collaboration between researchers and policy makers and will be taken up in the final blog in this series.

This article has been originally published on "Developing Pakistan - Where insights meet clarity on Pakistan's development".