Southeast Asia is the world’s fastest-growing region.
It has just completed one of the most dramatic transformations in history: converting from a low-income, rural economy to an urban, middle-income market powerhouse.
The changes in this region are challenging many of our old assumptions about economic and social development, and also raising big questions about sustainability.
This blog post discusses 10 sustainability issues that are affecting Southeast Asia’s growing population.
This is a selection of the key sustainability issues facing southeast Asia, and some of the ways they are being addressed by governments, businesses and communities.
1) Climate change
Southeast Asia is one of the world’s most vulnerable regions to climate change.
It is among the most exposed regions to climate change.
The adaptation challenges are enormous, and new knowledge about the interactions between climate change, poverty, and urbanization will be crucial for decision-makers to achieve development goals within the limits of climate change.
Because of climate change, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that sea levels could rise by 0.3-0.7 meters in this region by 2100.
This threatens the habitability of low-lying islands like the Maldives and Tuvalu, as well as destroying biodiversity and swamping coastal infrastructures such as ports and airports.
On the other hand, population growth has put rising pressure on natural resources in Indonesia, Vietnam, India, and other countries in Southeast Asia.
This has contributed to deforestation and the burning of fossil fuels causing air pollution which contributes to global warming.
Indonesia alone is identified as one of the top ten countries most vulnerable to climate change.
The region’s rich biodiversity is also at risk, with animals and plants already disappearing in many areas.
Key ecosystem services such as water quality, water quantity, pollination, natural pest control, and soil fertility are also at risk.
2) Water scarcity
Southeast Asia has some of the most water-scarce regions on earth.
The rising population, poor governance, and changing weather patterns are all contributing to severe water shortages in many parts of the region.
A U.N.-sponsored report estimates that over half the population of this region suffers from “severe” or “catastrophic” water scarcity, with hundreds of millions facing “substantial” or “severe” water shortages – conditions that can lead to significant health risks and malnutrition for children.
Bangladesh, Cambodia, Indonesia, Myanmar, Vietnam, and Thailand are all experiencing water shortages.
In some areas of this region (such as Thailand), more than half of the population suffers from “extremely” or “severe” shortages.
In parts of southern India, parts of Bangladesh, northern Laos, and China, up to 40 percent of people experience severe water problems.
Many people in this region depend on river systems that have been significantly altered by human activities – such as water diversion projects and agriculture.
In some cases, the disruption has greatly affected the biological cycles that sustain the waterways themselves – the loss of a river ecosystem is equivalent to the loss of an entire ecosystem on a smaller scale.
Rising temperatures could cause water tables to fall, with adverse effects on agriculture.
Of the world’s problems considered most severe by experts, water scarcity is in sixth place – and it’s in terrible shape throughout this region.
3) Growing population.
Southeast Asia has some of the highest growth rates in the world, with stronger median years of schooling (due to lower fertility rates) coupled with rapid urbanization.
This means that for many countries this region is experiencing a demographic shift that makes “low-fertility” countries outgrow “high-fertility” countries in the coming decades.
The region has a median population growth rate of 2.2 percent per year and is expected to have a population of nearly 600 million people in 2030 – nearly twice the current number.
The largest populations are expected to be in Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam, with over 100 million people each by 2030.
Urbanization rates will rise rapidly as well – if countries continue along the current path of rapid urbanization, an average of 30-35 percent of their populations will be urban by the end of this century, up from 25 percent today.
Growth in urban areas is already outpacing rural areas, with half of all cities expected to have annual growth rates above 5 percent between now and 2020.
In many countries in this region, urbanization will place even more pressure on natural resources, as people continue to use higher levels of water and energy.
4) Increasing population density
Southeast Asia has one of the highest regional population densities on earth – over 400 people per square kilometer on average (compared with fewer than 150 people in the U.S.).
The population of the region is already highly concentrated, with more than 50 percent of people living in just 8 countries.
Six countries (Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, and Myanmar) have more than 70 percent of their populations living in urban areas.
Growing numbers of people in this region face high levels of stress due to crowded living conditions, poor infrastructure, and high temperatures that can easily exceed the recommended safe limits (UNCRC).
Based on 2010 figures, 50% of people suffered from “severe” or “very severe” impacts from overcrowding.
The World Health Organization has identified unclean water supplies, unsafe sanitation, and poor health care services as the primary causes of this.
5) Insecure food supply
Southeast Asia faces growing challenges to its food security.
The region is home to many of the world’s undernourished (see map above) and hungry people, with some of the highest rates of stunted children in the world.
The World Bank estimates that over 90 million people in this region are undernourished, with nearly two-thirds living in rural areas.
Many countries are competing for land with a growing population of livestock animals, which compete with humans for food crops.
Thus, countries in the region (such as Indonesia and the Philippines) have signed agreements with the World Bank to provide food aid to poor countries in exchange for debt relief.
With so many people at risk from hunger, this causes some ethical issues – is it fair that those who can afford food should feed others?
In the end, is it better to purchase food for others instead of feeding them ourselves?
6) Land degradation
Southeast Asia has a high rate of soil erosion and water degradation in many areas (see map above).
This is exacerbated by heavy deforestation in recent years.
Deforestation and other forms of land degradation are especially risky during periods when heavy rains fall.
The World Bank estimates that almost half of all land in the region is classified as “highly degraded” and at high risk of erosion.
This level of degradation is particularly problematic in countries like Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, where livelihoods depend heavily on agriculture.
Over 70 percent of Southeast Asia has been deforested, with an area the size of California lost each year.
This region has one of the highest deforestation rates in the world – for every 0.25 hectares that are deforested, another hectare will be flooded during heavy storms or eroded by water over time.
Many countries in the region have already lost 90 percent of their primary forests – and this lack of trees creates a risk that heavy rains will cause flooding or erosion.
The loss of forests is also bad for the climate, as trees act as a “carbon sink” – they absorb carbon dioxide that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere.
8) Low agricultural productivity
Rising temperatures pose a risk to Southeast Asia’s food security.
Many countries in the region are already experiencing higher levels of crop failure and decreased agricultural production.
Indonesia is especially vulnerable, with almost 80 percent of its national rice production being lost due to poor soil quality and rising temperatures.
The region also faces increasing risks of refugee movements as people are forced to migrate to find arable land, jobs, and basic services.
9) Declining fish numbers
According to the United Nations, Southeast Asia has five of the six most-overfished marine regions in the world (the other being the southern Atlantic Ocean).
Between 1978 and 2003, total catches in this region declined by 50% and have continued to fall since.
At the same time, climate change is causing rising sea levels and increased temperatures – both of these will further strain fish stocks and lead to further declines.
10) Increasing and extremely deadly disease
Although Southeast Asia has lower rates of infectious diseases like HIV or malaria than other regions of the world, that’s not because there are no diseases.
The region is highly exposed to infectious diseases such as dengue fever, typhoid, and tuberculosis.
The disease burden in Southeast Asia is particularly dangerous, due to its high population density, poor sanitation, and weak health systems.
Some estimates suggest that the region has at least one million new cases of tuberculosis per year – which can spread quickly in crowded areas with poor sanitation.
It’s clear that this region faces urgent risks to its natural resources and is already experiencing increasing environmental stress.
With a continued lack of action, the impacts will only get worse – which will have an enormous impact on people living in this region.
How can we prevent these problems from getting worse?
It’s time for leaders to discuss what measures they can take to ensure the rights of their citizens. Upcoming summits such as the U.N.
Climate Change Conference in Paris provide a great opportunity for them to take positive action for all of us living in Southeast Asia and beyond.