Waterways, forests, and fertile land are an essential and largely finite resource. Once damaged, they may become unusable for long periods, and their repair is often an expensive and protracted process. The developing economies of Asia are confronted by serious environmental problems that threaten to undermine future growth, food security, and regional stability. There are four major environmental challenges that policymakers across developing Asia will need to address towards 2030: water management, air pollution, deforestation and land degradation, and climate change.
Fresh water is essential to agricultural and industrial production. It is a basic requirement for human life. The depletion and contamination of these resources generates large economic costs, not just by increasing the cost of obtaining a direct input to production, but also through damaging impacts to environmental systems and human health. Consequently, water management is viewed not only as an environmental issue, but a major challenge to economic development, particularly in Asia’s larger economies.
Major improvements have occurred with regards to water access and sanitation in Asia over the last two decades, but large numbers still have inadequate facilities. United Nations projections to 2030 estimate that the total population of ASEAN, the PRC, and India—currently comprising 46% of the world’s total population—will rise by another 462 million people. The attendant rises in agricultural, industrial, and urban usage will place even greater strain on dwindling supplies throughout these economies. By 2030, under current management policies, water demand will exceed supply in the PRC and India by 25% and 50%.
Deforestation and land degradation
Deforestation and land degradation throughout Asia are caused by various factors, including: demand for timber products and palm oil, intensive farming, and urban sprawl. Over-cultivation of agricultural land is increasingly leading to declining soil productivity and, consequently, lower output. For poor regulation is, in some cases, guilty corruption with commonly allowed unsustainable practices.
The PRC now has the largest area of planted forest in the world and, the government is elevating its level of ambition in this area, but despite extensive land restoration projects, the area of arable land continues to fall as erosion and pollution spread. In Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, and Cambodia, where deforestation continues on a massive scale. In India, the government estimates that nearly half of the country’s land is degraded.
Access to clean air is a principal determinant of human health, as well as the overall condition of other organisms and environmental processes. Outdoor air pollution is a common by-product of industrial production and motorized transport. On the other hand, indoor air pollution is often associated with a lack of development. Consequently, air pollution is a primary cause of illness and death in both the growing cities and the poorer rural areas of Asia.
Poverty causes over 2 billion people in developing Asia to use solid fuels for cooking and heating. Particulate matter, carbon monoxide, and other harmful airborne substances damage the lungs of householders, causing a variety of illnesses also including cancer. At an aggregate level there have been significant improvements in recent time, but without renewed mitigation efforts, such as tighter emissions standards and stronger monitoring programs, the situation across the region could deteriorate substantially.
Asia is highly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. With a large population in low-lying and coastal areas, widespread water insecurity, and around two thirds of the world’s poorest people, the region is likely to suffer extensive damages in the future. Rising maximum temperatures and changing rainfall patterns are affecting agriculture and food security today, and the effect of these changes will escalate to 2030. For example, it is estimated that yields of important crops will decline in parts of Asia by 2.5% to 10%. Greater intensity of extreme weather events, incidence of flooding and tropical disease, and decline of marine ecosystems are also concerns for the proximate future.
The presence of numerous and diverse stakeholders, in addition to the complex links between their welfare and the problem, entails that solutions are neither right or wrong, but rather better or worse. It is clear that the current trajectory of environmental degradation in Asia is unsustainable. Policymakers around the region acknowledge the importance of environmentally sustainable growth and are already acting, but much more will need to be done.
ADBInstitute – Asia’s Wicked Environmental Problems (Catalog)