An image of the country's flag.

The landscape of Pakistan is highly varied, with mountains, deserts, and the vast, irrigated Indus River Valley providing distinctly different productive opportunities for the population of nearly 170 million people. Combined access to land and water is critical to rural productivity. The densely-settled Indus Basin Irrigation System (IBIS) is the breadbasket of the country and also produces the commodities that drive industry, with cotton textiles accounting for some 50–60% of exports. The IBIS is a resource shared with India, and while 90% of the IBIS land area is in Pakistan, a treaty with India governs Pakistan’s access to water. Populations in the arid and semi-arid mountainous areas in the west and north of the country are more dispersed; farmers cultivating rainfed land known as barani rely upon smaller irrigation systems to support their crop and livestock enterprises.

Ownership of irrigated land in the Indus Valley is highly concentrated. Between 20% and 40% of rural households are reported to be landless or near-landless. They either lease or sharecrop land when they can or work as laborers on and off farms; many are raising stall-fed livestock. Poverty is highly correlated with landlessness and is seen as contributing to political and social instability. Repeated government attempts to address inequality of access to land and tenure insecurity have largely failed to transform the system. Tenants and sharecroppers have little incentive to invest in sustainable production practices. Insecure land tenure, coupled with poor water policy and management, have led to increasing degradation of land. Undervaluing the water supply has led to waterlogging and inefficient water-use in some areas while poor water distribution has caused lack of water in other areas, lowering the profitability of land and the incentive to invest in complementary inputs.

Enactment of a comprehensive legal framework for establishing more equitable access to property and more transparent land administration could, many analysts believe, contribute to both political and economic development objectives. Given Pakistan’s history, however, the preparation and administration of such a framework would require substantial and sustained leadership on the part of both federal and provincial governments. Alternatively, linking statutory law with local customary law, ensuring that women have rights to property as established in law, and the establishment of a land registration system that incorporates the current tax-revenue-based system of records with standardized documents and registries could increase tenure security and reduce land-based conflicts.

Reforms could also address urban land issues, currently cited by Pakistani firms as one of the barriers to investment. As government ownership of land in urban areas is significant, a more proactive role for local development authorities to address housing and industrial needs appears feasible. There also seems to be a need for more effective governance of urban areas to allocate land for low-income housing and prevent illegal land seizures and squatting.


  • Alternatives to land redistribution schemes. Drawing on experience elsewhere, donors could develop innovative options for increasing rural land access for the poor. Micro-plots, for example, could provide poor households with the economic, nutritional, and psychological benefits of landownership without requiring the government to identify large amounts of agricultural land for redistribution. The development of methods for permitting women to acquire land and water rights in ways consistent with Islamic law and Pakistan’s Constitution could increase women’s economic opportunities and productivity.
  • Urban land. Initiatives to address urban land issues could encompass housing for the poor as well as accessibility of space for commercial and industrial investments. Increased attention to housing for the poor could improve public health and safety and, through increased security of tenure, encourage investment in and maintenance of properties. The Orangi Pilot Project in Karachi provides a successful model for the development and distribution of services in squatter settlements. Donors’ support for removing barriers to urban investment by improving access to land (and services) could contribute to job creation and to the stability Pakistan needs.
  • Water policy and law. Pakistan has no comprehensive water policy or water law defining rights to resources. The government of Pakistan recognizes the need for a water resource strategy and formal, enforceable communal and individual property rights to water. The government has drafted numerous water policy statements and prepared several water resource strategies but a policy and strategy have not yet been adopted. Donors could provide technical assistance and support to assist the government in its efforts to create a comprehensive legal framework governing water resources, develop a sequencing plan for adoption of necessary components, and create an implementation program that responds to the challenges posed by the environment while taking advantage of successful local community governance models and water resource strategies.
  • Implementation of existing laws and construction of cadastres. Donors could support the systematic upgrading of land, water and forest administration, including construction of cadastres, in areas where other assistance investments are being made. Over time, integration of resource governance issues with other kinds of assistance could lead to greater tenure security, broader access to land and water, and sustainable use of forests – all of which could promote economic and social development and enhance political stability.


Land ownership is highly concentrated in rural Pakistan and a root cause of persistent poverty and instability countrywide. Land with access to water is the principal asset in the rural economy, and poverty is strongly correlated to landlessness. About 43% of the rural population is landless or near-landless and lacks access to irrigation water and other factors of production. Unequal access to land and inefficient and inequitable systems of water- management are creating patterns of natural resource use that diminish agricultural productivity, contribute to land degradation, and perpetuate poverty and social instability.

The Land Reform Act of 1977 – Pakistan’s third and most recent effort at addressing inequality of land access and land tenure since Independence – failed to meet its objectives. The legislation attempted to plug gaps in prior legislation and implement tenancy, land ceiling, and land distribution reforms. Almost all of the minimal progress made occurred under the initial 1959 reforms. Pakistan’s uneven land distribution remains unaddressed. The country is also plagued by poorly functioning, inadequate and duplicative systems of land administration, and an overburdened and ineffective formal court system. Parallel customary systems of transferring land and resolving land-disputes prove more accessible and efficient, creating a pluralistic legal environment.

Pakistan has a semi-arid climate and uses almost all available surface and groundwater resources to meet the demands of the agricultural, industrial, and domestic sectors. Only 60% of the water from the Indus Basin Irrigation System (IBIS) reaches farms, water use is often inefficient, and demand for water is increasing. About 50% of water in irrigated systems comes from groundwater; the energy costs to pump the water are increasing, and aquifers are not being adequately recharged through the development of rainwater harvesting and storage.

The quality of agricultural and rangeland in Pakistan is degraded. The country has one of the highest rates of deforestation in the world, and its forests cannot meet the population’s need for fuelwood.

Women in Pakistan are unable to exercise the rights to land granted to them by constitutional, statutory, and religious law, under pressure of customary law and traditional practice. Women’s access to the natural resources they depend on for their livelihoods is inherently insecure and easily lost in times of scarcity.

Pakistan has significant mineral deposits, including gemstones, coal, copper, and iron ore. Provincial governments have authority to regulate mining of most minerals within their borders. Most deposits have not been explored or mined due to lack of infrastructure and investment.

Published / Updated: September 2010