United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)
Global Environment Outlook-1 - The Web version

Chapter 2: Regional Perspectives

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Asia and the Pacific

Underlying Causes

[ Social | Economic | Institutional | Environmental ]

The root causes of different environmental problems vary considerably in Asia and the Pacific. Much of the increasing severity of problems is driven by the demographic situation, although other aspects of the human condition-such as cultural, social, and economic status; traditional and acquired technologies; institutional and legal systems; and changing consumption patterns-have all played a significant role. Although high economic growth is being achieved in many countries in the region, poverty is still a problem at the root of several environmental problems. Impacts on the environment caused by the developed and the newly industrialized countries in the region, as well as the unsustainable use of natural resources by those countries (and other developed countries outside the region), have also been considerable (NEPA, personal communication, 1996).


Population size, growth rate, and distribution have contributed significantly to shaping the environment in this region. Looking at demographic trends (population growth rates and densities), the countries most likely to face environmental problems include Maldives, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, closely followed by Nepal, Vietnam, India, and the Philippines (ESCAP, 1995a).

The levels of consumption in Asia and the Pacific vary significantly among countries, but in general as a region, the consumption levels are modest-for instance, with regard to energy consumption (and hence, lower per capita carbon dioxide emissions) (ESCAP, 1995a). Nevertheless, the high population growth rate has been found to strongly correlate with rates of deforestation, expansion of agricultural land, and increasing water scarcity in some countries (ESCAP, 1995a). In recent decades, pressure on arable land resulting from expansion of human settlements, the clearing of land for cultivation, intensive agriculture for intensified food production, and overgrazing has been noted, and has led to the expansion of agricultural areas into forest areas and marginal lands. Migration from rural to urban areas has accounted for some 40 per cent of urban population growth during 1970-90 in most developing countries of the region (ESCAP, 1995a). The major environmental problems associated with urban development, as described earlier, are increasing pollution levels due to the concentrated discharge of gaseous, liquid, and solid wastes into the environment and the consequent destruction of fragile ecosystems.

Deforestation is also a major problem associated with urban expansion. For example, fuelwood meets 50 per cent of the cooking energy needs of the urban population in many countries (ESCAP, 1995a). Coastal areas with sensitive ecosystems have fallen victim to the continued pressure of urbanization in the region. In the Pacific subregion, urban residents are running short of fuelwood as coastal mangroves and inland forests are depleted. In Tuvalu, pressure on the coastal environment has also followed the migration of people from the outer islands to the dense shanty areas in the capital city on the Fogafale Islet (Thistlewaite and Votaw, 1991).


The developing countries of Asia and the Pacific are economically the fastest growing group of countries in the world, with an average growth rate in GDP of 7 per cent during 1991-94 compared with the world economic growth rate of 1.1 per cent (ESCAP, 1995a). Although growth of this order and magnitude has been instrumental in reducing the incidence of poverty, particularly in East Asia and among the Association of South-East Asian Nations, it has been accompanied by serious environmental problems (ESCAP, 1995a).

The impact of industry on the environment has become increasingly evident: resource depletion; contamination of water, air, and land; health hazards; and degradation of natural ecosystems. Industrial sources contribute a relatively high share to air pollution in this region because the main source of industrial energy is fossil fuels, with a high share of coal, and the major air polluting industries, such as iron, steel, fertilizer, and cement, are growing in the region. Similarly, water-polluting industries are expanding very rapidly. For instance, in 1992, approximately 64 per cent of the total wastewater generated  in China was from the industrial sector (ESCAP, 1995a).

Both the quality and the quantity of industrial solid waste is problematic from the environmental point of view. For example, China has had the most waste-intensive production process in this region; in 1990, more than 2 kilograms of industrial waste were generated for every US dollar (in constant 1980 prices) of industrial production (ESCAP, 1995a). However, since 1990, the rate of waste generation has slowed down and even decreased in the case of industrial solid waste (NEPA, personal communication, 1996).

The transportation sector has become a key accelerating factor for economic growth as well as environmental degradation. A relatively heavy concentration of road networks and vehicles in a few cities has resulted in high levels of pollution. For example, road transport accounts for a major share of the air pollution load in Delhi (57 per cent), Beijing (75 per cent), Manila (70 per cent), and Kuala Lumpur (86 per cent) (WRI/UNEP/UNDP, 1994).

With regard to coastal and marine environments, port and harbour projects primarily have impacts on sensitive coastal ecosystems. Construction affects, in varying degrees, the hydrology and surface-water quality in the coastal zones, fisheries, coral reefs, and mangroves, as noted earlier. China, Hong Kong, India, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Papua New Guinea are making substantial investments in expanding their maritime transport. Also, these countries are undertaking dredging operations for the maintenance of port transportation facilities (UN, 1994).

Agriculture in the Asia and Pacific region has witnessed accelerated structural changes in the past 40 years. In terms of direct impact on the environment, farming activities are major contributors to soil erosion, land salinization, and loss of nutrients. For example, it has been estimated that about 25 per cent of the soil degradation in the region has occurred directly from agricultural activities. Shifting cultivation has been an important cause for land degradation in many countries of this region: Bangladesh, Brunei Darussalam, Fiji, India, Indonesia, the Lao PDR, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Solomon Islands, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Vietnam (Dent et al., 1992). As noted earlier, natural habitats are being destroyed, degraded, and depleted, accompanied by significant loss of wild species.

The largest water user on a regional scale is the agricultural sector, with more than two thirds of the water abstracted from the region's rivers, lakes, and aquifers being used for irrigation. With regard to the impacts of agro-chemicals, there is now considerable evidence that the leaching of fertilizer into water bodies is a significant source of water pollution. In particular, excessive levels of nitrates and other nutrients resulting from fertilizer application are a major cause of eutrophication in surface water throughout the region. The region's use of fertilizers increased from 11 million tons in 1968-70 to 52 million tons in 1988-90 (FADINAP, 1992). In 1990, an average of 125 kilograms of fertilizer were used per hectare, although this figure was exceeded in the Republic of Korea, Korea DPR, China, and Malaysia (ESCAP, 1995a). The intensification of agriculture in recent years has also been accompanied by the extensive use of pesticides (herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides). Data on unintended pesticide poisonings are not currently available.

Over the past two decades, there has been an impressive growth in tourism in this region. This has generally led to the creation of additional employment, increased flows of foreign exchange and infrastructural development, and the restoration of cultural, religious, and heritage sites. Of 500 million international tourist arrivals world-wide in 1993, 14.5 per cent (72.4 million) were registered in this region, compared with 1.3 per cent in 1960 (WTO, 1994a, 1994b, 1994c).

Tourism growth has also had significant environmental impacts, however, particularly in relation to important ecosystems such as mangroves, forests, and coral reefs. Impacts on the physical environment are largely related to tourism infrastructure development (including resorts, hotels, and coastal zone management activities), inducing soil erosion, landslides, sedimentation, and water pollution. For example, unplanned development of infrastructure too close to the shoreline has affected coastal natural processes and led to beach erosion, particularly in Fiji, Indonesia, Maldives, Malaysia, and Sri Lanka. With the introduction of environmental impact assessments (EIAs), such unplanned developmental activities are being checked.

Coral reefs are one of the primary tourist attractions in the region. Damage to coral reefs from sedimentation is widespread, particularly in Thailand, where 51 per cent of coral reefs are under threat (ESCAP, 1995a). Also, mangrove forests in Thailand, Fiji, and the Philippines are currently under threat from tourism-related development and activities, including direct encroachment from hotel and resort construction, exploitation for fuelwood, and clearance for shrimp farming (OEPP, 1996).

Promoting liberal trade while maintaining and strengthening protection of the environment and natural resources is one of the great policy challenges of the decade. There has been a widespread inflow of polluting industries and hazardous waste from industrial nations, and an outflow of raw materials and resource-intensive industrial products to them.

The direct effects of agricultural trade liberalization on Asian environmental resources are less clear. However, increasing product prices are likely to lead to greater demand of agro-chemicals. Demand for water could also rise, an important consideration in countries with seasonal water scarcity, such as Thailand. Studies of the impact of trade on land resources have shown a positive correlation between rate of forest conversion and crop prices (Barbier and Burgess, 1992).

Similarly, the principal direct environmental impact of manufactured goods and their export is industrial pollution. While almost 75 per cent of total world exports of "dirty" industries originates from industrial countries, South-East Asia's share increased from 3.4 per cent in 1965 to 8.4 per cent in 1988, reflecting the region's rapid expansion of manufactured exports (Low and Yeats, 1992). South Asia's share of the world total, based on India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, rose from 2.1 per cent to 2.8 per cent over the same period (Low and Yeats, 1992).


In this region, Government responsibility for the environment rests with environment ministries, with a division or unit in another ministry, with independent environment agencies, or with departments created to assist the environment ministries. Most of the environment institutions in developing countries are relatively small and far from satisfactory in terms of staffing and financial resources. Command and control is the main environmental policy instrument in the region. Strategic environmental planning, legislative means, and regulatory standards and planning procedures are the most commonly used tools of environmental control. The least used instruments are those related to economic incentives.

A common problem is that environmental institutions have no power to audit the environmental performance of sectoral institutions. Thus, they are attempting to strengthen performance through improvement of existing tools or by developing additional tools for use by other institutions. Two major shortcomings with regard to the greening of industry and business in the region are weak monitoring and enforcement capabilities of environment institutions and the lack of green consumerism.

Moderate progress was made during the last five years on the effective implementation of the environmental impact assessment process. The overall quality of EIAs in the region suggests a need for more legislation, regulations, and guidelines. There is also an urgent need to create Government environment management units that can enforce the EIA's procedure. In addition, the federal system of some Governments makes it difficult to enforce EIAs for activities related to resource exploitation because these are usually under the jurisdiction of a provincial Government.

Institution-strengthening measures (which include training of key professionals, especially engineers and economists, on EIA techniques) are needed to make the EIA procedure a more effective instrument for sustainable development in the region. For example, in India there was an initiative to develop responsibility for EIA in the State Governments, but most projects are now once again under the responsibility of a unit in the Ministry of Environment and Forests because many States lacked the institutional capacity to handle EIAs of large and complex projects (ESCAP, 1995a).

Similarly, using risk assessment in developing countries entails many problems, including the lack of trained personal and comprehensive databases-whether industrial, medical, or environmental.

Developing countries of the region are only moderately involved in international agreements on the environment, and the least developed countries are barely participating. In most cases, non-implementation is due to inadequate availability of the professional and administrative expertise and resources needed to formulate and implement relevant domestic legislation.


Many of the developing countries in this region are situated in the world's hazard belts of floods, droughts, cyclones, earthquakes, windstorms, tidal waves, and landslides. The major natural disasters faced periodically are largely due to climatic and seismic factors. The region has been one of the worst hit in terms of natural disasters, suffering 50 per cent of the world's major emergencies (ESCAP, 1995a). Since the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction began in 1990, the total number of deaths in the region due to these causes has exceeded 200,000, with the damage to property over this period estimated at US$100 billion (ESCAP, 1995a). Vulnerability has increased due to growing urban populations, environmental degradation, and a lack of planning and preparedness.

Disasters are the result of meteorological phenomena such as typhoons, hurricanes, sheet flooding, and marine- and river-based floods; of geological processes such as volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and tsunamis; and of climatic phenomenon such as the El Niño-Southern Oscillation that results in a lower mean sea surface temperature in the east, failure of the monsoon rains in India, and drought in Indonesia and Australia. Vulnerability to natural hazards has been increased in many coastal areas due to the loss of habitats such as mangroves and coral reefs that provided natural protection against marine-based flooding.

Tropical cyclones, or typhoons, which are common in Asia and the Pacific, occur most frequently over the north-west Pacific during June and November just east of the Philippines, with an average of 30 typhoons per year (38 per cent of the world's total) (ESCAP, 1995a). In the Bay of Bengal, tropical cyclones usually form over the southern end during April-December and then move to the east coast of India and Bangladesh, causing severe flooding and, often, devastating tidal surges. The cyclones generated in the South Pacific Ocean frequently cause devastation in small island countries such as Fiji, Tonga, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, and Samoa. Overall, the Philippines, Bangladesh, and Vietnam appear to suffer most frequently from these large events.

Floods, which are the most common climate-related disasters in the region, include seasonal flooding, flash flooding, urban flooding due to inadequate drainage facilities, floods associated with tidal events induced by typhoons in coastal areas, and so on. In Bangladesh, one of the most flood-prone countries in the region, as many as 80 million people are vulnerable to flooding each year (ESCAP, 1995a). Another example is India, where 40 million hectares are at risk from flooding each year, and the average annual direct damage has been estimated at US$240 million, although this can exceed US$1.5 billion when flooding is severe (ESCAP, 1995a).

It has been observed that the impact of droughts differs widely between industrial and developing countries because of such factors as water supply efficiency and behavioural patterns such as water use efficiency. Most of the estimated 500 million rural poor in this region are subsistence farmers occupying mainly rainfed land (ESCAP, 1995a). The drought-prone countries in this region are Afghanistan, Iran, Myanmar, Pakistan, Nepal, India, Sri Lanka, and parts of Bangladesh. In India about 33 per cent of the arable land-14 per cent of the total land area of the country-is considered to be drought-prone, and a further 35 per cent can also be affected by drought when rainfall is exceptionally low for extended periods (ESCAP, 1995a). Nepal has experienced severe droughts in the past. Also, the Philippines, Thailand, Australia, and the Pacific islands of Fiji, Vanuatu, and Samoa contain drought-prone areas.

Landslides, which are very common in the hills and mountainous parts of the region, occur frequently in India, China, Nepal, Thailand, and the Philippines. In addition to the primary cause-the topography-landslides are aggravated by human activities, such as deforestation, cultivation, and construction, which destabilize the already fragile slopes. For instance, as a result of combined actions of natural (mostly heavy rainfall) and human factors, as many as 12,000 landslides occur in Nepal each year (ESCAP, 1995a).

The region has recorded 70 per cent of the world's earthquakes measuring 7 or more on the Richter scale, at an average rate of 15 per year (ESCAP, 1995a). The countries badly affected by earthquakes include Afghanistan, India, Iran, Japan, Nepal, the Philippines, and the Pacific Islands.

Many of the countries in the region are located along or adjacent to the Pacific Ocean Seismic Zone and/or the Indian Ocean Seismic Zone. For instance, 50-60 per cent of India is vulnerable to seismic activities of varying intensity (ESCAP, 1995a). These areas are essentially located in the Himalayan region and in the Union Territory of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. The September 1993 earthquake in Maharashtra State in Western India claimed more than 12,000 lives (ESCAP, 1995a).

Similarly, about 80 per cent of China's territorial area (with 60 per cent of its large cities and 70 per cent of its urban areas with populations over 1 million) is located in seismic zones (ESCAP, 1995a). The most devastating earthquake in the world in recent history, the Tangshan earthquake in China on 28 July 1976, claimed more than 240,000 lives (ESCAP, 1995a). Japan is located in the Pacific Rim seismic zone.

Japan suffers a massive earthquake (Richter scale 8 or over) on average once every 10 years, and a large-scale earthquake (magnitude 7 class) on average once a year (ESCAP, 1995a). In January 1995, Japan suffered one of the worst earthquakes in recent years at Kobe, which claimed 5,000 lives (ESCAP, 1995a). The Philippines, which lies between two of the world's most active tectonic plates, experiences an average of five earthquakes a day, most of which are imperceptible (ESCAP, 1995a). And in New Zealand, an average of 200 perceptible earthquakes occur each year, with one at least exceeding 6 on the Richter scale (ESCAP, 1995a).

Tsunamis, the tidal waves generated by earthquakes, affect many of the coastal areas of the region, including those of Japan, Indonesia, and the Philippines. For example, the infamous Krakatau volcanic eruption during 1883 in Sunda Straits, Indonesia, generated a 35-metre-high tsunami, which claimed 36,000 lives (ESCAP, 1995a). Furthermore, the tsunami of 17 August 1976 in the Moro Gulf area of the Philippines caused some 8,000 deaths (ESCAP, 1995a).

Volcanoes, like earthquakes, are located mainly along the Pacific Rim. Countries of the region at risk from volcanic eruptions include Indonesia, Japan, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Solomon Islands, Tonga, and Vanuatu. Those most frequently affected are Indonesia (129 active volcanoes), Japan (77 active volcanoes), and the Philippines (21 active volcanoes) (ESCAP, 1995a; Government of Japan, 1987).

Notable examples include the eruptions of Mount Pinatubo in Central Luzon, during the period 12-15 June 1991, which affected about 1-2 million people (Lewinson, 1993), demolished the surrounding forests, caused massive siltation of rivers and coastal areas, and deposited volcanic ash in surrounding areas and even across continents. In New Zealand, Mount Tarawera had a severe eruption in 1886, and the Ngauruhoe, which erupted in 1974, emits steam and vapour constantly (ESCAP, 1995a). In Papua New Guinea, the volcanic eruption in 1994 near the city of Rabaul damaged about 40 per cent of the houses in the area (ESCAP, 1995a).

Environmental degradation and disasters are very closely linked in this region. The countries that suffer most from disasters are the same ones in which environmental degradation is proceeding most rapidly. Similarly, poverty and vulnerability to disasters are closely linked. There are some 3,000 deaths per event in low-income countries, and less than 400 per event in middle- and high-income countries (ESCAP, 1992). This reflects the absence of a sufficient infrastructure in low-income economies to mitigate the impact of natural disasters. Both Japan and Pakistan are prone to earthquakes, for example. The people of Japan, however, are far less vulnerable because that Government has strictly enforced building codes, zoning regulations, and earthquake emergency training and communication systems; in Pakistan, most people still live in top-heavy mud and stone houses built on hillsides, increasing their vulnerability.

Encroachment of disaster-prone lands due to rapid population growth is accelerating the vulnerability to disasters. It has been estimated that annual flood losses in some countries are 40 times more today than what they were in the 1950s (ESCAP, 1992). According to the Indian Government, one out of every 20 people in the nation is vulnerable to flooding (ESCAP, 1992). Similarly, in China more than 85 per cent of the population is concentrated on alluvial plains or basins along river courses that constitute one third of its total land area (ESCAP, 1992).

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