The landscape of Pakistan ranges from lofty mountains — the Karakoram and the Hindu Kush — in the north to miles of golden beaches of Mekran coast in the south. In the middle are plateaus and the rich alluvial plains of the Punjab and the Indus Valley. In the east and south are desolate barren deserts and plain of Balochistan and Sindh. [Source: Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation. ]

Located in northwestern part of the Indian subcontinent and bordered by Iran and Afghanistan to the west, China to the north, India to east, the Arabian Sea (part of the Indian Ocean to the south), Pakistan is 796,095 square kilometers (307,374 square miles) in area, which is roughly three times the size of Great Britain or slightly less than twice the size of California. Pakistan extends about 1,300 kilometers (800 miles) from north to south. At its widest point it is about 1,125 kilometers (700 miles) from east to west. Its border with Afghanistan extends for 2,670 kilometers. The one with India is 3,190 kilometers; with China its 438 kilometers; with Iran, its 959 kilometers.

About 35.2 percent of the country is good for agriculture (compared to 21 percent in the U.S.) and most of this is in the Punjab or on land irrigated by the Indus river. About 6.5 percent of Pakistan is covered by pastureland and 2.1 percent by forests and woods. The remainder of the country is primarily desert in the bottom three fourths of the country and mountains and high barren plateaus in the top fourth.

Pakistan is divided into five areas: the provinces of Sind, Balochistan, Punjab, Gilgit-Baltistan (formerly the Northern Areas) and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (formerly the North-West Frontier Province). These provinces roughly correspond with the country's major geographic, ethnic, and linguistic regions. Gilgit-Baltistan is made up of a series of valleys situated in the Karakorum range. Perhaps more spectacular than the Everest and Annapurna Himalayas, the Karokorum mountains are located where India, China, the former Soviet Union, Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Himalayas, Pamirs, and Hindu Kush all come together.

Rugged mountains rise along the borders of Iran and Afghanistan. The main range, the Sulaiman, has peaks over 3,500 meters (11,000 feet high). The other main ranges are the Kirthat and Hindu Kush. Below these huge mountains are foot hills that would be high mountains if they were in any other place. South of the northern mountains is the Potohar Plateau, known for it eroded physical features. South of this is the Salt Range, known for its unusual rock formations and huge salt sediments.

Along the Afghan border, encompassing the Hindu Kush, is Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (formerly the Northwest Frontier Provinces). In this remote and rarely traveled region you will find wild mountain tribes, Afghan refugees and the Golden Crescent, the largest opium growing and heroin producing region in the world. In western Pakistan, taking up almost a third a country, is Balochistan, a massive desert of boulders and sand that extends to the Iranian and Afghan borders. Much of it lies on a plateau.

The Punjab region, which extends into India, is the breadbasket of Pakistan and the only part of the country you could is say is really green. Huge irrigation project harness the waters of the Indus to grow rice, grain and vegetables in the Punjab and Sindh. Many of these are set up are around canal colonies. Unlike the Punjab in India there are few Sikhs in the Pakistani Punjab. The Sindh occupies the Lower Indus Plain. The unirrigated land is barren and brown. Karachi, Pakistan's most important city and largest port, is located in the Sind. The gray, sandy Sindh Desert in the southeast is an extension of India's Thar Desert###.

Major Rivers: The Indus River and its main tributaries—the Jhelum, Chenab, Ravi, Beas, and Sutlej flow out of the northern mountains. Pakistan's heartland is the broad valleys of these rivers. Flowing out of the Karakorum mountains into the Punjab and the Sindh is the Indus River, without which Pakistan would dry up like a prune.

Major Cities (estimated population in 2020): Karachi: 16 million; Lahore: 12.6 million; Faisalbad: 3.5 million; Gujranwala: 2.229 million; Hyderabad: 1.73 million; Rawalpindi: 2.23 million; Islamabad (capital): 1.13 million. All these cities have twice the population or more they had in the 1990s. Estimated population in 1990: Karachi: 7 million; Lahore: 3.5 million; Faisalbad: 2.1 million; Hyderabad: 795,000: Rawalpindi, 928,000. Other Cities: Peshawar, Bahawalpur, Multan, Quetta, Sargodha, Sialkot and Sukkur. Islamabad and adjacent Rawalpindi comprise the national capital area with a combined population, including nearby towns, of roughly 4.7 million.

Geography: Basic Information

Pakistan is part of the greater Indian subcontinent. With exception of the fertile, well-irrigated Punjab and Indus Valley, Pakistan is mostly an inhospitable land of arid deserts and rugged mountains. The Indus River and its tributaries attract most of the settlement, with Punjab province being the most densely populated. The Afghanistan-Pakistan mountainous border area is where the Indian subcontinent pushes up against the barren highlands of Central Asia. [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020; Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation. ]

Location: Southern Asia, bordering the Arabian Sea, between India on the east and Iran and Afghanistan on the west and China in the north. Geographic coordinates: 30 00 N, 70 00 E; between 24 and 37 degrees latitude North and 61 and 75 degrees longitude East. Area: 796,095 square kilometers (land: 770,875 square kilometers: water: 25,220 square kilometers). Pakistan is the 33rd or 37th largest country in the world, depending in how Kashmir (whose possession is disputed by India and Pakistan) is counted. Pakistan is slightly more than five times the size of Georgia; slightly less than twice the size of California. =

Pakistan can be divided into three major geographic areas: the northern highlands, the Indus River plain in the center and east, and the Balochistan Plateau in the south and west
Elevation: mean elevation: 900 meters (2950 feet)
lowest point: Arabian Sea 0 meters
highest point: K2 (Mt. Godwin-Austen) 8,611 meters (28,251 feet)
Longest distances: 1,875 kilometers (1,165 miles) from northeast to southwest; 1,006 kilometers (625 miles) from southeast to northwest

Land use: Land use: agricultural land: 35. 2 percent (2011 est.)
arable land: 27.6 percent (2011 est.) / permanent crops: 1. 1 percent (2011 est.) / permanent pasture: 6.5 percent (2011 est.)
forest: 2. 1 percent (2011 est.)
other: 62.7 percent (2011 est.)
Irrigated land: Irrigated land: 202,000 square kilometers (2012)

Agricultural land is divided into arable land (land cultivated for crops like wheat and rice that are replanted after each harvest) and permanent crops (land with for crops like citrus, coffee, and rubber that are not replanted after each harvest) and permanent pasture (land used for grazing animals such as cattle and sheep).

Size and Disputed Territory of Pakistan

Pakistan’s exact size is debated because of its disputed border with India. According to the United Nations and the Pakistan government, the country has a total area of 796,095 square kilometers. Others have calculated the total land area of Pakistan to be 803,940 square kilometers. These figure, however, do not include the Pakistan-administered portions of Jammu and Kashmir (known as Azad Kashmir and the Northern Areas, with areas of 11,639 square kilometers and 72,520 square kilometers, respectively). These areas are claimed by Pakistan, but because their possession is disputed, they are not included in official land area statistics. [Source: Library of Congress, February 2005 **]

Afghanistan disputes the legitimacy of its border with Pakistan, and at times Afghanistan’s governments have argued that all Pashtun (Pakhtun) territory in Afghanistan and Pakistan should be under Afghan control. Pakistan and India have disputed possession of Jammu and Kashmir since 1947, and the issue remains unresolved despite numerous cease-fire agreements between the two countries. Jammu and Kashmir is split between the two countries by a United Nations-monitored border called the Line of Control. **

Various talks and confidence-building measures cautiously have begun to defuse tensions over Kashmir, particularly since the October 2005 earthquake in the region; Kashmir nevertheless remains the site of the world's largest and most militarized territorial dispute with portions under the de facto administration of China (Aksai Chin), India (Jammu and Kashmir), and Pakistan (Azad Kashmir and Northern Areas); UN Military Observer Group in India and Pakistan has maintained a small group of peacekeepers since 1949; India does not recognize Pakistan's ceding historic Kashmir lands to China in 1964; India and Pakistan have maintained their 2004 cease-fire in Kashmir and initiated discussions on defusing the armed standoff in the Siachen glacier region; Pakistan protests India's fencing the highly militarized Line of Control and construction of the Baglihar Dam on the Chenab River in Jammu and Kashmir, which is part of the larger dispute on water sharing of the Indus River and its tributaries; to defuse tensions and prepare for discussions on a maritime boundary, India and Pakistan seek technical resolution of the disputed boundary in Sir Creek estuary at the mouth of the Rann of Kutch in the Arabian Sea; Pakistani maps continue to show the Junagadh claim in India's Gujarat State; since 2002, with UN assistance, Pakistan has repatriated 3. 8 million Afghan refugees, leaving about 2. 6 million; Pakistan has sent troops across and built fences along some remote tribal areas of its treaty-defined Durand Line border with Afghanistan, which serve as bases for foreign terrorists and other illegal activities; Afghan, Coalition, and Pakistan military meet periodically to clarify the alignment of the boundary on the ground and on maps [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020]

Geology of Pakistan

Pakistan lies at the meeting place of three tectonic plates: the Arabian, Indian, and Eurasian. The Arabian Plate converges with the Eurasian Plate at the coastline in southeastern Pakistan. On Pakistan's eastern and northeastern border the Eurasian Plate collides with the Indian Plate. Seismic activity is high along this border, and the region surrounding Quetta is also prone to frequent and devastating earthquakes. [Source: Geo-Data: The World Geographical Encyclopedia, The Gale Group Inc., 2003 ++]

The northern part of Pakistan, sometimes called the Roof of the World , is where of some of the most formidable mountains in the world come together. The Himalayas stretch from northeast India, Nepal and Tibet to the northeast corner of Pakistan, where they merge with the Karakoram and Pamirs mountain ranges. To the west are high plateaus of the Pamirs and the steep valleys of the Hindu Kush. To the north is Tien Shan range of Central Asia and western China. [Source: Geo-Data: The World Geographical Encyclopedia, The Gale Group Inc., 2003]

The Himalayas, the Karakoram and the Hindu Kush were created 65 million years when the Indian subcontinent collided with the Asian plate. Some mountains in the range are composed of crystalline rocks such as granite and gneiss, whiles others are made up of schists and sedimentary rock. The sharp, spiky shapes of some of the more spectacular mountains are mainly the work of glaciers. The mountains also bring snowmelt water and life to an otherwise parched nation.

Pakistan is subject to frequent seismic disturbances because the tectonic plate under the subcontinent hits the plate under Asia as it continues to move northward and to push the Himalayas ever higher. The region surrounding Quetta is highly prone to earthquakes. A severe quake in 1931 was followed by one of more destructive force in 1935. The small city of Quetta was almost completely destroyed, and the adjacent military cantonment was heavily damaged. At least 20,000 people were killed. Tremors continue in the vicinity of Quetta; the most recent major quake occurred in January 1991. Far fewer people were killed in the 1991 quake than died in 1935, although entire villages in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (formerly North-West Frontier Province) were destroyed. A major earthquake centered in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (formerly North-West Frontier Province)'s Kohistan District in 1965 also caused heavy damage. [Source: Peter Blood, Library of Congress, 1994 *]

Boundaries of Pakistan

Pakistan lies at a cross roads of the Middle East, Central Asia and South Asia. To the North, the country shares its borders with the People's Republic of China and the Wakhan Corridor of Afghanistan. To the South stretches the 1,046 kilometer coastline of the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean. India borders Pakistan to the east. The border spans about 1200 kilometers from the Himalayas in the north to the Arabian Sea in the south. [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020; Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation. ]

Afghanistan and Iran border Pakistan on the west. The Bolan and Khyber Passes, which have traditionally served as entry points for aliens are situated in this area. The boundary with Iran is about 800 kilometers in length. The border with Afghanistan, known as the Durand Line, runs 2,643 kilometers from the Hindu Kush, where a narrow strip of Afghan territory called the Wakhan Corridor is located between Pakistan and Tajikistan. The Pak-China border begins at the eastern tip of the Wakhan Corridor and runs about 520 kilometers, moving south-east to end near the Karakoram Pass.

Land boundaries: total: 7,257 kilometers: border countries (four):
Afghanistan: 2670 kilometers to the northwest
China: 438 kilometers to the northeast
India: 3190 kilometers to the east
Iran: 959 kilometers to the west
Coastline: 1,046 kilometers on the Arabian Sea to the south
Maritime claims: territorial sea: 12 nautical miles;
exclusive economic zone: 200 nautical miles;
contiguous zone: 24 nautical miles;
continental shelf: 200 nautical miles or to the edge of the continental margin. [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020]

Land Boundaries: Pakistan shares borders with Afghanistan (2,430 kilometers), China (523 kilometers), India (2,912 kilometers), and Iran (909 kilometers). Length of Coastline: Pakistan’s coastline totals 1,064 kilometers along the Arabian Sea. Maritime Claims: Under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, Pakistan claims a 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone, a 12-nautical-mile territorial sea, and a 24nautical-mile contiguous zone for security, immigration, customs, and other matters. [Source: Library of Congress, February 2005 **]

The boundary with Iran was first delimited by a British commission in 1893, separating Iran from what was then British Indian Balochistan. In 1957 Pakistan signed a frontier agreement with Iran, and since then the border between the two countries has not been a subject of serious dispute. **

Pakistan's boundary with Afghanistan is about 2,250 kilometers long. In the north, it runs along the ridges of the Hindu Kush (meaning Hindu Killer) mountains and the Pamirs, where a narrow strip of Afghan territory called the Wakhan Corridor extends between Pakistan and Tajikistan. The Hindu Kush was traditionally regarded as the last northwestern outpost where Hindus could venture in safety. The boundary line with Afghanistan was drawn in 1893 by Sir Mortimer Durand, then foreign secretary in British India, and was acceded to by the amir of Afghanistan that same year. This boundary, called the Durand Line, was not in doubt when Pakistan became independent in 1947, although its legitimacy was in later years disputed periodically by the Afghan government as well as by Pashtun tribes straddling the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. On the one hand, Afghanistan claimed that the Durand Line had been imposed by a stronger power upon a weaker one, and it favored the establishment of still another state to be called Pashtunistan or Pakhtunistan. On the other hand, Pakistan, as the legatee of the British in the region, insisted on the legality and permanence of the boundary. The Durand Line remained in effect in 1994.

Border Between Pakistan and India

The Pakistan-India boundary continues irregularly southward for about 1,280 kilometers, following the line of the 1947 Radcliffe Award, named for Sir Cyril Radcliffe, the head of the British boundary commission on the partition of Punjab and Bengal in 1947. Although this boundary with India is not formally disputed, passions still run high on both sides of the border. Many Indians had expected the original boundary line to run farther to the west, thereby ceding Lahore to India; Pakistanis had expected the line to run much farther east, possibly granting them control of Delhi, the imperial capital of the Mughal Empire. [Source: Library of Congress, February 2005 **]

Sir Cyril Radcliffe was a lawyer by training and former director general at the British Ministry of Information. Radcliffe had no training in cartography or demographics, and one of the main reason he was selected for the job was that he knew very little about India and was therefore judged to be relatively unbiased. He arrived in India without even knowing what his task was.

Pankaj Mishra, The New Yorker: “Radcliffe, a London barrister, was flown to Delhi and given forty days to define precisely the strange political geography of an India flanked by an eastern and a western wing called Pakistan. He did not visit the villages, communities, rivers, or forests divided by the lines he drew on paper. Ill-informed about the relation between agricultural hinterlands and industrial centers, he made a mistake of enormous economic consequence when, dividing Bengal on religious lines, he deprived the Muslim majority in the eastern region of its major city, Calcutta, condemning East Pakistan—and, later, Bangladesh—to decades of rural backwardness. [Source: Pankaj Mishra, The New Yorker, August 13, 2007]

The southern borders are far less contentious than those in the north. The Thar Desert in the province of Sindh is separated in the south from the salt flats of the Rann of Kutch by a boundary that was first delineated in 1923-24. After partition, Pakistan contested the southern boundary of Sindh, and a succession of border incidents resulted. They were less dangerous and less widespread, however, than the conflict that erupted in Kashmir in the Indo-Pakistani War of August 1965. These southern hostilities were ended by British mediation, and both sides accepted the award of the Indo-Pakistan Western Boundary Case Tribunal designated by the UN secretary general. The tribunal made its award on February 19, 1968, delimiting a line of 403 kilometers that was later demarcated by joint survey teams. Of its original claim of some 9,100 square kilometers, Pakistan was awarded only about 780 square kilometers. Beyond the western terminus of the tribunal's award, the final stretch of Pakistan's border with India is about 80 kilometers long, running west and southwest to an inlet of the Arabian Sea. **

See Northern Pakistan Below

Topography of Pakistan

Pakistan has a diverse array of landscapes spread among nine major ecological zones. Its territory encompasses portions of the Himalaya, Hindu Kush, and Karakoram mountain ranges, making it home to some of the world’s highest mountains, including K2, which at 8,611 meters (28,251 feet) above sea level is the world’s second highest peak. Intermountain valleys make up much of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (formerly North-West Frontier Province), and rugged plateaus cover much of Balochistan Province in the west. In the east, expansive, irrigated plains along the Indus River cover much of of Punjab and Sindh provinces, which have deserts as well (Cholistan in Punjab, Thar in Sindh). [Source: Library of Congress, February 2005 **]

Pakistan is divided into three major geographic areas: the northern highlands; the Indus River plain, with two major subdivisions corresponding roughly to the provinces of Punjab and Sindh; and the Balochistan Plateau. Some geographers designate additional major regions. For example, the mountain ranges along the western border with Afghanistan are sometimes described separately from the Balochistan Plateau, and on the eastern border with India, south of the Sutlej River, the Thar Desert may be considered separately from the Indus Plain. Nevertheless, the country may conveniently be visualized in general terms as divided in three by an imaginary line drawn eastward from the Khyber Pass and another drawn southwest from Islamabad down the middle of the country. Roughly, then, the northern highlands are north of the imaginary east-west line; the Balochistan Plateau is to the west of the imaginary southwest line; and the Indus Plain lies to the east of that line. [Source: Peter Blood, Library of Congress, 1994 *]

The northern highlands include parts of the Hindu Kush, the Karakoram Range, and the Himalayas. This area includes such famous peaks as K2 (Mount Godwin Austen, at 8,611 meters, 28,251 feet the second highest peak in the world), and Nanga Parbat (8,126 meters, 26,660 feet), the ninth highest. More than one-half of the summits are over 4,500 meters, and more than fifty peaks reach above 6,500 meters. Travel through the area is difficult and dangerous, although the government is attempting to develop certain areas into tourist and trekking sites. Because of their rugged topography and the rigors of the climate, the northern highlands and the Himalayas to the east have been formidable barriers to movement into Pakistan throughout history.*

South of the northern highlands and west of the Indus River plain are the Safed Koh Range along the Afghanistan border and the Sulaiman Range and Kirthar Range, which define the western extent of the province of Sindh and reach almost to the southern coast. The lower reaches are far more arid than those in the north, and they branch into ranges that run generally to the southwest across the province Balochistan. North-south valleys in Balochistan and Sindh have restricted the migration of peoples along the Makran Coast on the Arabian Sea east toward the plains.*

Several large passes cut the ranges along the border with Afghanistan. Among them are the Khojak Pass, about eighty kilometers northwest of Quetta in Balochistan; the Khyber Pass, forty kilometers west of Peshawar and leading to Kabul; and the Baroghil Pass in the far north, providing access to the Wakhan Corridor.*

Land Use and Location of Pakistan

Pakistan occupies a position of great geostrategic importance Located in the northwestern part of the South Asian subcontinent, Pakistan became a state as a result of the partition of British India on August 14, 1947. Pakistan annexed Azad (Free) Kashmir after the Indo-Pakistani War of 1947-48. Initially, Pakistan also included the northeastern sector of the subcontinent, where Muslims are also in the majority. The East Wing and West Wing of Pakistan were, however, separated by 1,600 kilometers of hostile Indian territory. The country's East Wing, or East Pakistan, became the independent state of Bangladesh in December 1971.

Pakistan controls Khyber Pass and Bolan Pass, the traditional invasion routes between Central Asia and the Indian Subcontinent. Khyber Pass is the famous breach between the rugged, arid Hindu Kush mountains used for millennia by caravans and conquerors traveling between India, Central Asia and the Middle East. About 48 kilometers (30 miles) long and 15 meters wide at it's narrowest point, the pass is incredible low — only 1027 meters (3,370 feet) above sea level. Even today — or at least until fairly recently — it has two separate roads: one vehicles and one for camels.

Situated between Pakistan and Afghanistan and controlled for many centuries by Pathan tribesmen, the Khyber Pass was used by the armies of Alexander the Great to invade India, by Arab missionaries to introduce Islam to China and Central Asia and by Mughal emperors and British soldiers to subdue religious tribes in Afghanistan. Turks, Persians, Huns, Aryans and others traversed it on their way to conquests in both the east and west. Most recently it was the major supply route for the Afghan “mujahadden” in their fight against the Soviet Union and a trail of tears for Afghan refugees escaping their homeland. Today, three Afridi Pathan tribes dominate the Afghani side.

More than 40 percent of the working population is employed in agriculture, yet the per capita amount of agricultural land is declining, and there are significant natural limitations to increasing the quantity of arable land. According to official statistics for 2004, the country’s total land area is 79.6 million hectares, but only 59.3 million hectares have been surveyed. Out of the surveyed land area, 24.6 million hectares are classified as not available for cultivation, 3.6 million hectares are forest area, and 9.2 million hectares are unused but believed to be cultivable. Approximately 22 million hectares are used for cultivation, of which nearly 16 million hectares are actually sown, with the remainder left fallow. About 13.5 million hectares of the sown area are irrigated, and 6.5 million hectares are sown more than once per year. Most cultivable and irrigated land is located in the eastern provinces of Punjab and Sindh around the Indus River and its tributaries. Pakistan has an extensive but inefficient canal system for irrigation, and much of the crop area is rain fed, but precipitation tends to be unevenly distributed throughout the year. [Source: Library of Congress, February 2005 **]

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation (, Official Gateway to the Government of Pakistan (, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated February 2022

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