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Chapter Two: The State of the Environment - Asia and the Pacific

Social and economic background

In the past 100 years, most countries in the region have undergone unparalleled social, political and economic transformations. Colonialism, which dominated much of the region, was replaced by other political systems. Economies, which were largely agrarian, became industrialized, export-oriented and better integrated with global markets. Agriculture was intensified to increase production for home consumption and export.

 Calorie intake per capita


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Source: compiled by UNEP GRID Geneva from FAOSTAT 1997 and WRI, UNEP, UNDP and WB 1998

 
Though calorie intake has risen rapidly in the region, it is still about one-third lower than in developed countries

Rapid industrialization and economic growth have changed virtually every dimension of life, especially in East and Southeast Asia. Yet, by many measures - of health, education, nutrition, as well as income - the quality of life within the region remains poor for most people. At least one in three Asians has no access to safe drinking water and at least one in two has no access to sanitation (ADB 1997). Average cereal consumption is one-third that in the developed countries, and average calorie intake, though rising, is low in most sub-regions (see graph). Literacy rates tend to be low, particularly for women (ADB 1997). Poverty is a major problem: some 75 per cent of the world's poor live in Asia (UNESCAP/ADB 1995).

In most countries, economic development and industrialization have taken a heavy toll on the environment. At the turn of the century, environmental degradation in the region was largely due to poor farming methods, colonial expansionist land practices in South and Southeast Asia, and foreign invasions and mineral exploitation in China. Japan and China were among the first industrialized economies in the region. Following World War II, there was rapid growth of the commercial and services sectors in Japan and improvements in health, education, housing and nutrition. In Southeast Asia, rapid economic growth began in the early 1980s. Change came later to South Asia where Structural Adjustment Programmes and economic liberalization have only recently begun to be implemented.

The economies of Australia and New Zealand are based more on natural resources than other industrialized countries in the region. Agriculture and mining account for most export earnings derived from trade in commodities in Australia (Commonwealth of Australia 1998). Pacific island states rely heavily on their natural resources directly through agricultural production, forestry and fisheries and indirectly through tourism. The Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of these small countries comprises a large proportion of their total area and, for some, offshore marine resources are almost the only basis for economic development.

 GDP per capita


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Source: compiled by RIVM, the Netherlands, from World Bank and UN data

 
The region has huge variations in wealth and economic growth. GDP/capita for Australasia and the Pacific was more than seven times the regional average in 1995

In the past decade, economic growth rates have varied dramatically. The fastest growing economies were in China and Thailand, both of which registered about 8 per cent average annual growth during 1985-95. In 1995 GDP per capita ranged from US$14 791 for Australasia and the Pacific, to US$1 183 for Southeast Asia to only US$484 for South Asia (see graph).

Economic growth has been largely fuelled by industrialization and international trade. During 1980-95, the share of the industrial and services sectors in the region's total GDP increased significantly while the agricultural sector declined, except in most Mekong basin countries. In 1960, 75 per cent of working Asians were employed in agriculture; by 1990 this had fallen to 62 per cent. Over the same period, the share of people working in industry grew from around 15 to 21 per cent (ADB 1997). The dramatic economic growth rates of the early part of the 1990s have been followed by equally dramatic economic slumps, particularly in Southeast Asia. Average economic growth rates in the Pacific island countries also appear to have turned sharply negative since the East Asian financial crisis.

Economic growth has been accompanied by some improvement in health and education, although the region lags far behind the developed world. Adult literacy varies from only 15 per cent female literacy in Afghanistan and 41 per cent male literacy in Nepal to more than 95 per cent for both sexes in countries such as the Republic of Korea and Japan (UNESCO 1995). The literacy rate is also high in Australia, although some groups still have poor literacy skills (Commonwealth of Australia 1998).

Life expectancies in some countries are now comparable with those of middle- and high-income countries. There has also been a marked decline in infant mortality, from 68 per 1000 live births in 1990 to 59 per 1000 in 1995, although great disparities still exist in the region (UNESCAP/ADB 1995).

 Annual growth of per capita GDP, 1975-95
 
 
Australasia and the Pacific 1.42%
Greater Mekong 5.62%
Northwest Pacific and East Asia 3.80%
South Asia 1.54%
Southeast Asia 4.08%
Asia and Pacific 3.09%
(World 1.17%)
 

Source: compiled by RIVM, the Netherlands, from World Bank and UN data

 

The advantages of rapid economic growth have not filtered down to all levels of society. Poverty remains a significant problem, particularly in South Asia where there are more than 515 million of the region's 950 million poor people (UNDP 1997) and around 39 per cent of the population is below the poverty line, with numbers still increasing.

Rural poverty, together with rapid industrialization, has led to rates of rural-urban migration that are significantly higher than the global average, although at around 33 per cent the proportion of urban population in the region was lower than the global average of 45 per cent in 1995 (United Nations Population Division 1997).

Population densities in South Asia are among the highest in the world, and there is great pressure on land resources throughout the region - in which some 60 per cent of the world population depends on 30 per cent of its land area (UNESCAP/ADB 1995). Bangladesh had 922 persons per km2 in 1995 (WRI, UNEP, UNDP and WB 1998). The combination of rural poverty and population pressure has forced people to move to ecologically-fragile areas. In addition, the number of landless people is increasing.

 Population


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Source: compiled by UNEP GRID Geneva from United Nations Population Division 1996

 
The large and growing populations found in most sub-regions are one of the causes of environmental degradation and pollution

Population growth rates have declined in recent years and the region's overall growth rate is now the same as the world average of 1.4 per cent. The highest sub-regional figures are 1.9 and 1.7 per cent a year for South and Southeast Asia respectively (United Nations Population Division 1996).

The combination of high population density and growth, rapid industrialization and urbanization, and poverty has taken its toll on the region's natural resource base, accelerated environmental degradation and led to a substantial increase in air and water pollution. Other significant environmental problems include land degradation caused by deforestation and inappropriate agricultural practices, water loss, and mangrove clearance for aquaculture. Estimates of the economic costs of environmental degradation in Asia range from 1 to 9 per cent of national GNPs (ADB 1997).

In addition, the natural disasters which regularly hit the region, especially the South Pacific island states, can have extremely damaging impacts on both the environment and fragile economies (see box).

Environmental experts are not agreed about the relative significance of the various causes of environmental degradation. Rapid population growth is often blamed but the damage continues even in countries with low and declining population growth rates (ADB 1997). Economic growth is also blamed but rising incomes eventually lead to improvements as growing popular demand for a better environment forces a favourable policy shift. This point is not far off for Asia's more prosperous newly industrialized economies (ADB 1997).

 Natural disasters
 

Cyclones, floods, storm surges, earthquakes, droughts, landslides and volcanic eruptions affect many countries in the region causing great loss of life and extensive damage to property and infrastructure. These disasters seriously affect the pace of development. One cyclone in Bangladesh in November 1970 caused almost half a million casualties, with colossal damage to property and infrastructure. In 1976, a single earthquake in China took nearly 300 000 lives.

Trends in disaster events are disturbing. Statistics show that during the period 1900-91, there have been more than 3 500 disasters - roughly 40 a year - and that they have killed more than 27 million people.

There is also evidence that the frequency of disasters is increasing. For the top 10 most disaster-prone countries in the region - Australia, Bangladesh, China, India, Indonesia, the Islamic Republic of Iran, Japan, New Zealand, Philippines and Viet Nam - there were a total of 1 312 disasters during the 25 years 1966-90, which killed 1.7 million people and affected more than 2 000 million. The frequency of disasters in this period was 52.5 a year, compared to only 24.8 a year over the period 1900-91.

It is possible that global climate change may result in similar or even worse trends in the future. An increase in the occurrence of natural disasters during the next decades could have serious economic effects. For example, the cyclones of 1990 and 1991 in Samoa caused a total estimated loss of US$416 million, about four times the GDP of that country. Samoa has yet to recover from these cyclones. Precautionary measures and mitigation plans need be strengthened in all countries of the region.

Source: CRED 1991 and 1993

 

Asia's environmental crisis may be mainly a result of market and policy failures, neglect and institutional weaknesses. Only a few countries in East Asia, including China, have succeeded in implementing policies to reverse the trend of continuing degradation.

The most important external force shaping the region's future will be the increased integration of the world economy. Global trade provides access to the information, ideas, technologies, and the other critical resources that are the backbone of economic progress. Greater mobility of international capital will also mean less scope for autonomy in macro-economic policy. In the future, as recent events in Southeast and East Asia have shown, global capital markets will react to changes in fiscal and monetary policies more quickly and more severely than in the past.

The most important external force shaping the region's future will be the increased integration of the world economy. Global trade provides access to the information, ideas, technologies, and the other critical resources that are the backbone of economic progress. Greater mobility of international capital will also mean less scope for autonomy in macro-economic policy. In the future, as recent events in Southeast and East Asia have shown, global capital markets will react to changes in fiscal and monetary policies more quickly and more severely than in the past.

A 'business as usual' scenario suggests that continued rapid economic growth and industrialization may result in further environmental damage and that the region may become more degraded, less forested, more polluted and less ecologically diverse in the future. Asia's particular style of urbanization - toward megacities - is likely to further exacerbate environmental and social stresses (ADB 1997).


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