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Population growth and the environment

A focus for discussing the impact of population growth is the expanding evidence about the association between increasing population densities and environmental degradation. Rapid population growth not only diminishes available dietary energy from food supplies on a per person basis but also jeopardizes the maintenance of present food-production levels. Brown and Postel (1987: 4) state: 'A frustration paradox is emerging.... Efforts to improve living standards are themselves beginning to threaten the health of the global economy. The very notion of progress begs for redefinition in the light of intolerable consequences unfolding as a result of its pursuit.'

There are specific examples of environmental deterioration in areas of rapid population gain. Nearly two-thirds of the 1.5 billion hectares of cropland worldwide has been brought into cultivation since the mid-1800s with a corresponding shrinkage in grasslands, wetlands, and temperate and tropical forests (Repetto, 1987: 14-15). Half of the globe's wetlands may have already been lost.

As population pressure pushes cultivation from plains and valleys into the hills, an estimated 160 million hectares of upland watersheds in tropical developing countries have been seriously eroded. On the island of Java, which contains some 60 per cent of Indonesia's total population, Birowo and Prabowo (1986) estimated that soil-erosion rates ranged from 3 to 20 or more times greater than in other parts of the country. Sediment concentration in the river basins has been assessed as from 2 to 10 times as great.

With population densities intensifying, cultivated areas tend to extend outwards and upwards-from the high-yielding lowlands into the less productive upland soils, formerly grazing or forest lands. Lower yields from these fields discourage investments in necessary conservation measures, such as check-dams or terracing. The situation is frequently aggravated by land fragmentation- another indicator of population pressure-which makes it difficult to co-ordinate conservation activities even within a single watershed. In poverty-stricken countries, public funds are spread thinly to provide services and employment for ever-increasing urban dwellers.

Pressure on Resources: 'Carrying Capacity'

Questions have been raised concerning the longer-term capability of resources within specific political boundaries to sustain present or projected population numbers. One approach-borrowed from the field of biology on the maximum population sustainable within a habitat is the concept of carrying capacity, that is, linking population with the local natural resource base. A very ambitious attempt (Higgins et al., 1984) to measure the carrying capacity of the entire developing world (except for East Asia) was undertaken by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in collaboration with the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) and supported by the United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA). The study sought to estimate food-production potential in each soil/climate zone for 15 major crops at 3 different levels of farming practice: low-input, subsistence agriculture; intermediate agriculture, with the introduction of modern technology, conservation measures and improved cropping patterns; and high-level agriculture equivalent to farming practices in industrialized countries. The maximum population sustainable by each country's food output was established on the basis of average caloric and protein intakes, jointly recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO) and FAO in 1973. The projected age and sex distributions of the population at two time periods, 1975 and 2000, were not taken into account in calculating national requirements.

Such a study has several limitations (Hendry, 1988). First, the calculations were not based on economic analysis. Secondly, no allowance was made for cropland to provide livestock feed or to produce non-food cash crops. Thirdly, the elimination of inequities in intra-country food distribution, which would increase average food requirements, was not taken into account in the calculations. Lastly, no consideration was given to other national resources or to the potential role of trade. Brookfield (1992: 28) contends that despite the masses of data utilized, and given the considerable amount of resources available to it, 'the methodology differs little from that of the early carryingcapacity calculations of the 1960s.... As a statement about "carrying capacity", this one-based on a one-sector, closed-economy model-merely reveals the impossibility of determining or even conceptualizing what it is in a real, independent world.'

More intensive use of land and water resources to meet demands from rapidly swelling populations for heightened food production, manifold industrial purposes and diverse domestic uses carries implications for the sustainability of these resources. Evidence exists which points to the severe stress placed on resources needed for food production in many regions: advancing deforestation, soil degradation and desertification. Population increments are not the only cause-poor land management, poverty, inappropriate technologies and other factors also contribute. Blaikie and Brookfield (1987) showed that degradation can arise under both high and low population densities, and under both poverty and affluence, while restorative management can also occur in all these circumstances. According to Brookfield (1992), swelling numbers of people account for only a part of the damage now being perpetrated on increasingly larger portions of the environment. The greater mobility of people and their activities, their enhanced means of inflicting harm through simple innovations such as the chain-saw, as well as all the modern industrial tools, are also partly responsible. Brookfield contends that rising numbers constitute a major element in the damage, but do not form a sufficient explanation in themselves.

But population density is not always a reliable indicator of the pressure upon resources. While it may be true that increasing population pressures have contributed to the shortening of fallow periods and to the removal of forest cover, simply calculating the density per square kilometre does not explain the population-resources relationship sufficiently. Two factors may decide how much damage a person wreaks upon his environment. One is lifestyle: how much that person consumes. The other is the kind of technology used and how much damage or waste it creates. Population size fixes the number of persons and, thus, the total level of damage. To illustrate, population growth is responsible for a greater share of deforestation than commercial logging or ranching. Much of the forest that has been cleared in developing countries has become cropland for expanding populations that cannot be accommodated on existing farmland. These populations may be responsible for more than 80 per cent of the loss of forest cover.

Poverty, of course, is partly to blame for soil erosion. Poor peasants cannot buy fertilizers or pay for the conservation measures needed to protect the soil; and population growth forces farmers to exhaust the soil or to use marginal land. Unchecked soil erosion could cause a drop of close to one-third in food production from rain-fed cropland. This is clearly a direct danger to human life in developing countries.

The future

As developing countries industrialize, lifestyles and technologies will parallel those of the developed nations; for example, the car population world-wide over 1990-2010 is projected to reach some 700 million from the present 400 million, a rate of increase double that of human populations. Much of the increment will take place in the Third World. Should these trends and population growth continue, by 2025, developing countries will be emitting over four times as much carbon annually as developed countries do today.

Clearly, many lines of action are called for to save the environment for future generations. Changes in lifestyles will entail reductions in levels of consumption and wastage and increases in recycling. Technological advances will involve improvements in energy efficiency and efforts at soil conservation. Deforestation must be halted and reversed. But population is part of every equation of redemption: reducing population increments will make an immense contribution.

The UN Secretariat has prepared three 'variants' of their population projections. The 'medium' variant has been featured in the tables in this chapter. However, a 'low' variant demonstrates what would happen if birth-rates declined at a faster pace. On this projection, there would be 7,591 million inhabitants on the globe by 2025. This is 913 million less than the more likely medium variant. In South-East Asia, the low variant projects a population of 637 million by the first quarter of the twenty-first century, 89 million fewer than that expected in the 'medium' variant.

For South-East Asia as a whole, the difference between the two variants is 4.4 births per thousand population (Table 2.10) or 0.4 of a child in terms of the woman's completed family size (2.0 children per woman for the medium variant as against 1.6 children per woman for the low variant). Two countries-Cambodia and Laos-are estimated to have relatively high birthrates even in 2025. The medium-variant rates exceed the lowvariant rates by only 1.9 and 2.5 births per thousand respectively. The resultant total fertility rates for the low-variant projection are over 2 children per woman. Singapore which under the medium variant has a crude birth-rate of 11.3 will only reduce this by 2.3 births per thousand in the low variant.

If the low-variant projection can be achieved, it would have the same impact on lowering carbon-dioxide emissions as halving deforestation; pressure on soil and water resources would be lowered; and provision of improved education and health services would be facilitated.

The achievement of these goals has been demonstrated by such countries as China, Singapore and Sri Lanka. A new priority for family planning and population programmes to persuade couples to have smaller families is urgently required. Improvements in health, education and the status of women will all be necessary. Through these efforts, the possibilities for present generations will be expanded and poverty reduced. More importantly, these steps will keep the choices open for future generations. Table 2.10 highlights the fact that SouthEast Asia will gain some 200 280 million people in the next 35 years (cf. Table 2.1), depending on the pace of fertility decline. This unavoidable increase in numbers will be greatest in those countries that are already facing ecological problems and are relatively poor; hence, the prospects of an environmentally sustainable development for South-East Asia is questionable unless the human problems are resolved and a balance achieved between population and resources in the long run.

TABLE 2.10 Projected Populations and Crude Birth-rates by ESCAP Subregion and by Country in South-East Asia: Medium and Low Variants, 2025


Population Projections ('000)

Crude Birth-rates
(per '000)









ESCAP 4,626,791 4,150,490 15.8 12.3
East Asia 1,736,879 1,575,461 12.6 10.0
South-East Asiaa 726,017 636,928 16.7 12.3
Cambodia 13,989 12,858 19.8 17.9
Indonesia 285,913 246,631 16.3 11.6
Laos 8,600 7,591 20.4 17.9
Malaysia 30,116 25,744 16.7 12.2
Myanmar 72,619 63,215 17.3 13.3
Philippines 111,509 101,847 17.4 13.4
Singapore 3,319 3,052 11.3 9.0
Thailand 80,911 69,699 14.4 10.3
Vietnam 117,491 104,892 17.7 12.9
Papua New Guinea 7,291 6,532 19.7 15.1
South Asia 2,161,837 1,933,493 18.0 14.1
Oceaniab 38,207 34,9s5 14.0 11.2

Source: As for Table 2.1.
Note: Comparable figures for Brunei are not available.
a Subregional figures for South-East Asia do not include Papua New Guinea.
b Subregional figures for Oceania include Papua New Guinea.

3. Industrialization and urbanization in south-east Asia

Trends in economic growth, 1961-1987
Structural change
Factors responsible for strong ASEAN growth
Trends in urbanization
Urban primacy and megacity issues
Levers to influence urbanization and urban structure


Trends in economic growth, 1961-1987

THE remarkable economic performance of the Asian newly industrializing countries (NlCs) has received world-wide attention because, along with Japan, they showed by far the largest gains in relative per capita income in the world from 1960 to 1987 (Tables 3.1, 3.2). The record of growth among the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) (other than the Philippines) since the mid-1960s has been so strong that it is viewed with some bewilderment by planners from Africa and Latin America, where economic trends in many countries have been dismal. Although there was a downturn in most countries in 1982-5 (growth rates actually going into reverse in Singapore,' Malaysia and the Philippines in 1985), over the 1980s as a whole, ASEAN countries continued to perform strongly, with the exception of the Philippines, though even the latter showed signs of recovery after 1987 (Tyabji, 1990: Table 2.4).

The performance of the ASEAN economies dependent on trade and financial flows from the rest of the world-was weak during the mid-1980s due to the global recession, rising protectionism, the debt crisis and declining primary commodity prices combined with exchange-rate volatility. In 1987-8, the region's economic situation improved considerably with higher commodity prices and an upsurge in direct foreign investment. The longer-term effects of the latter and the structural reforms being undertaken by some countries to promote growth contribute to optimism about short-term prospects. However, given their dependence on trade, the outcome of the ongoing General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT, Uruguay) round will be of critical importance to ASEAN countries (Tyabji, 1990: 37).

Economic Growth in Individual Countries

Indonesia relies heavily on receipts from oil exports. Declining terms of trade impacted adversely on gross domestic product (GDP) growth and the balance of payments, forcing two devaluations in 1983 (by 28 per cent) and 1986 (by 31 per cent). These devaluations, combined with a more favourable external environment and the country's decision to liberalize trade, and to deregulate and privatize the economy, have aided recovery. Such structural reforms, implemented since the mid-1980s, place the economy more firmly on an export-led path to growth and should improve the sectoral balance. In 1987-8, non-oil exports, for the first time since the early 1970s, exceeded those of oil and gas.

TABLE 3.1 Per Capita GNP Comparisons, 1960 1987


Per Capita GNP (dollars)

Relative Per Capita GNP (Asian Developing Country Average as base)

Percentage Change in Relative Per Capita GNP

1960 1987 1960 1987 1960-87
Asian NlCs  
Hong Kong 348 8,070 3.6 15.9 349.1
South Korea 152 2,690 1.6 5.3 242.8
Singapore 432 7,940 4.4 15.7 256.0
Taiwan 138 4,630 1.4 9.2 549.8
South-East Asia  
Indonesia 76 450 0.8 0.9 14.7
Malaysia 278 1,810 2.8 3.6 26.1
Philippines 165 590 1.7 1.2 -30.7
Thailand 96 850 1.0 1.7 71 5
Myanmar 61 200 0.6 0.4 -36.5
Pacific Rim (Developed countries)  
United States 2,817 18,530 28.7 36.6 27.4
Japan 458 15,760 4.7 31.1 566.4
Australia 1,586 11,100 16.2 21.9 35.5
New Zealand 1,576 7,750 16.1 15.3 -4.8

Sources: Campbell (1993: Table 3.1); UN (1976): World Bank (1988).

In Malaysia, economic strategy and policies in the 1970s and 1980s were predicated on the need to achieve the New Economic Policy (NEP) targets of eradicating poverty, and promoting employment and wealth distribution in conformity with the racial distribution of the population. Malaysia's response to global recession, declining terms of trade and the need to achieve the NEP targets resulted in a sharply increased government expenditure-to-GDP ratio reaching 48 per cent in 1982, and external debt amounting to 66 per cent of gross national product (GNP) in 1986. Simultaneously, unemployment increased. Subsequent remedial policy responses have involved sharply reduced government (development) spending and measures to increase private investment.

TABLE 3.2 Demographic, Economic and Social Indicators in South-East Asian and Selected Countries,1965-1988


Country GDP
Real CDPGrowth Rate
(% p.a.)
Share of
(% p a )
Real Growth
Rate of
(% p.a )
(% of total)
Number Enrolledin Secondary
School as
Percentage of
1965-80 1980-8 1965 1988 1980 8 1980-5   1965 1987
Singapore 23.9 9,070 10.1 5.7 24 37 4.5 5.9 100 45 7l
Indonesia 83.2 440 8.0 5.1 13 36 5.1 1.1 27 12 46
Malaysia 34.7 1,940 7.3 4.6 25 n.a. 6.1 10.7 41 28 59
Philippines 39.2 630 5.9 0.1 28 34 -1.8 -2.1 41 41 68
Thailand 57.9 1,000 7.2 6.0 23 35 6.6 8.4 25 14 28
Australia 245.9 12,340 4.0 3.3 39 34 2.2 5.7 86 62 98
Japan 2,843.7 21,020 6.5 3.9 43 41 4.7 7.3 77 82 96
South Korea 171.3 3,600 9.6 9.9 25 43 12.6 13.0 69 35 88
Vietnam n.a. 130 n.a. n.a. n.a. 35 n.a. 8.3 19 23 42
Laos 0.5 n.a. n.a. n.a. n.a. n.a. n.a. n.a. 18 2 23
Myanmar n.a. n.a. n.a. n.a. n.a. n.a. n.a. 0.2 24 15 n.a.
Papua New Guinea 3.5 810 4.1 3.2 18 31 5.6 1.5 15 4 12

For the 1990s, Malaysia is charting a slightly different course. Rather than allocating finances to heavy industry where there is no comparative advantage, economic policy has recognized the strength of resource-based consumer and export-oriented industries. At the same time, its foreign investment policy has become less restrictive. The shift in policy emphasis from the racial distribution of wealth to poverty eradication concurrent with the transition from the NEP of 1970-90 to the New Development Policy (NDP) of 1991-2020 should result in an increase in private investment.

Until 1984, Singapore outperformed the rest of ASEAN, implying that it was unaffected by either the global recession or the world debt crisis. With the benefit of hindsight, the response to these two events was probably delayed by the construction boom. The economy entered its first recession for two decades in 1985 when construction activities dropped sharply, as did regional demand in the wake of the sharp decline in commodity prices. Singapore experienced the oil shock in reverse, but recovery was swift. Economic growth in 1987 and 1988 was well above the government targets of between 4 and 6 per cent. Unlike the rest of ASEAN, Singapore is not beset by debt and balance of payments problems, nor does she have an unemployment problem.

Thailand and the Philippines provide a stark contrast in growth. Countries of similar population size, they began the period with comparable per capita GNP. However, the consistently higher growth rates in Thailand over the period and its declining rate of population expansion gave her a sizeable per capita GNP edge by 1985. The Philippines' economic (and political) difficulties left their scars during the 1980s. While the economy has been more resilient since 1986, its heavy debt burden and balance of payments problems, unemployment and poverty remain serious concerns. For these reasons, structural adjustment has been minimal and further change will be necessary to put the economy on a more sustainable growth path.

During the first half of the 1980s, Thailand experienced a rising fiscal deficit, deterioration in the current account and steeply increasing external debt. Restrictive fiscal policies, combined with a baht devaluation of close to 15 per cent, were the major policies implemented as corrective or stabilization measures. Since then, assisted by an improved external environment including falling oil prices, the economy has rebounded with manufactured and service exports providing the impetus.

Meanwhile, Myanmar and Vietnam have followed their own, rather bumpy, roads towards prosperity. Following its poor performance in the 1960s, Myanmar enjoyed a period of economic expansion from the mid-1970s to 1983, recording strong growth in food production over this period (James, Naya and Meier, 1989:147). Vietnam performed similarly from 1980 to 1984, but fell on harder times in 1985 and 1986, partly due to mismanaged monetary reform in 1985. Both countries suffered from hyperinflation, balance of payments crises and lack of access to foreign capital (largely self-imposed in the case of Myanmar, but enforced by a US trade embargo in the case of Vietnam). Each has attempted economic reform since the mid-1980s, with greater success in Vietnam than in Myanmar, which has suffered from stagnant or declining production in many fields (FEER, 1990: 97). In 1989, Vietnam reemerged as a major rice exporter after nearly 30 years (FEER, 1990: 246), indicating some success in expanding rice production ahead of its growing population.

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