Population People

Posted March 1996

Linkages between Population, Natural Resources and Environment in China, Philippines, Indonesia and Viet Nam

by Alain Marcoux
Senior Officer, Population and Environment
Population Programme Service (SDWP)
FAO Women and Population Division


The natural resources of China are not especially abundant, at least in per caput terms. Water resources amount to 2,400 cubic meters (m3) per caput per year. This modest supply (less than a third of the world average) is expected to drop to 1,800 m3 in 2025 (based on the UN medium population projection). It must also be considered that the supply is heavily concentrated in the sparsely populated southwest of China. With increasing water use by agriculture, industries and cities, inland resources are overextended. More than 200 major cities lack adequate water, and some 50 of them face acute shortages. Beijing is seeking new sources of supply hundreds of kilometres away. Pollution of local aquifers by industrial and domestic wastes compounds the supply problem. By the year 2000 China will need an estimated 2,000 additional water treatment plans.

The area of land suitable for agriculture is slowly decreasing, from 112 million hectares in 1957 and 104 million in 1965 to about 96 million hectares in 1990 (less than 2/3 that of India). The per caput arable area has fallen by half since 1957. It is estimated that 300,000 ha are lost annually to urbanization. More than one third of the rangelands are overgrazed, and the consumption of forest products exceeds stock growth by 20 million m3 annually (Jing Neng Li, 1993).

The expansion of agriculture to the less suitable slopes has been traced by researchers over six centuries and found to be driven by population growth. Deforestation was already serious by the mid-20th century (when the Great Leap Forward had reforestation as one of its objectives). Subsequently the growth in agricultural production was sought through intensification rather than through land development. But the heavy reliance on fuelwood, and some amount of conversion into farmland, continued to take their toll on forests. Also, intensification brought about other problems since, despite some punctual successes in "ecological agriculture", the typical side effects of irrigation, fertilization and pesticide use have often developed.

At the national level, industry certainly is a dominant factor in environmental problems: quite often, obsolete technologies lead to excessive use of energy, basic products (minerals etc.) and high emission of pollutants. Energy production itself, based on huge consumption of coal, is highly deleterious. Overall, it has been estimated that economic losses and damage to the environment in the various economic sectors amounted to some 7 percent of the GNP in 1992--about twice the level estimated in highly industrialized countries such as Japan and the USA. The Government admits that the economy must evolve towards a low resource consumption model, and that this will require both efforts by the administration and involvement of the masses (Shen Yimin, 1994).

The population, despite a moderately low growth rate, still increases at the pace of 13 million annually. The official policy lists reduced environmental pressure as one of the benefits of lower fertility and slower growth. But the issue is obviously more complex. Human concentrations on a relatively small part of the national territory and in cities with inadequate infrastructures pose a continuing problem, the demographic aspects of which are difficult to tackle. Strikingly, when it comes to outlining specific policies for the classical three broad regions (eastern coastal/developed; central/developing; western/underdeveloped) documents address very well the different economic and environmental priorities, but say nothing on possible demographic support policies.


The Philippines are highly susceptible to environmental damage because of their mountainous terrain, fragile soils, and climate. Indeed, they probably suffer all the types of damage that could conceivably be feared to take place in that setting: deforestation, soil erosion, watershed abuse, disruption of water systems, and degradation of marine resources, including destruction of mangroves and coral reefs. A dominant factor is deforestation, which triggers a series of interlinked problems down the slopes and streams to the sea.

Deforestation was initiated by colonial logging operations: on Luzon, the bulk of deforestation took place before 1920; on Cebu, a logging ban was decided as early as 1870 in view of soil erosion problems. Overall, however, the US colonial rule (from 1904) accelerated deforestation by the introduction of modern logging methods. Settling in deforested areas became common under the pressure of population growth on lowland areas; with time, settling indeed became the main driving factor. In the 1960s and 1970s (after the peak of logging for export to Japan), population growth rates of up to 8 percent were observed in immigration areas.

Rapid population growth at the country level certainly was an important factor in this process, enhanced by unequal land distribution, poverty, lack of non-agricultural income opportunities and poor development policies. The development of export crops also was determinant in the land extension that almost doubled the cultivated area between 1960 and 1980 and reduced the forest area almost by half (Cruz and Cruz, 1990). But those crops also responded to the growing population's need for cash. Currently one third of the total population live upland, where half the area presents slopes that would require exceptional conservation works to support any cultivation. Critical watersheds are damaged, disrupting and loading rivers with silt while there is a growing need for irrigation, hence for stable water regimes. In fact, agriculture increasingly suffers from water deficits.

Coastal areas are vital for this populous country with an extremely long coastline. They used to be highly productive, supporting at least one fourth of the population. But the development of coastal towns and industries, the destruction of mangroves, the degradation of water systems, have grossly depleted the fisheries. Total catch has levelled off at 2 million tons, while it is projected that 4 million tons would be needed in 2020 (Myers, 1992).

Although growth has slowed somewhat, 1.4 million is still added to the country population yearly. The policy aims not only at further slowing the overall growth but also at halting the "exodus" to urban and coastal areas. This goes in the right direction as far as some environmental problems are concerned, but there remains a problem of the highlands. The agricultural "frontier" is closing there, which means that threshold effects are impending: unless human pressure stops mounting, local ecological systems may collapse, putting the subsistence of a large population at jeopardy.


Land degradation in Indonesia is caused by a mix of deforestation and improper agricultural practices. The latter have to do, for instance, with extensification on environmentally sensitive drylands in mountain areas, which is certainly driven by rural population growth (and poverty, which is itself related in part to high population/resources ratios). It has also been noted that urban growth in Java has involved the expansion of dryland farming onto upland slopes without adequate safeguards, and increased environmental stress through waste production and disposal (Jagannathan, 1990).

As for deforestation, it seems overwhelmingly due to conversion to agriculture either by small farmers or under public investment projects--in particular under the Transmigration Program, as shown below (World Bank, 1990):

Sources of deforestation ('000s ha/year)
Smallholder conversion500
Development projects250
Logging damage80
Fire loss70

Source: World Bank

Java, with its high population density and virtually all land in productive use, is the most affected island. In the uplands the eroded part expands at the rate of 1 to 2 percent annually and covers about one third of the cultivated area. Population growth there is rather lower than at national level, but some 150,000 farming households are still added each year. Holdings are very small and do not enable investing in conservation measures.

Various groups contribute to the spontaneous expansion of agriculture in Indonesia: traditional shifting cultivators who have grown out of their lands, "wilderness settlers" (locals, immigrants and agents of wealthier investors) and, increasingly, the spillover from Transmigration Program settlements (Government of Indonesia, 1985). The areas most endangered are the upper part of watersheds in densely populated regions. Erosion damages downstream river beds and irrigation structures; but the greater loss occurs to agricultural productivity due to soil depletion in those watersheds. The cost of soil erosion on Java alone has been estimated at $350-420 million annually, with 80 percent attributed to on-farm productivity losses and the rest to siltation of rivers, dams and canals downstream (World Bank, 1989).

In Indonesia also, population policy has aimed to slow population growth, with good success. But this was clearly not enough to alleviate pressure on natural resources in the densely populated Inner Islands. This led successive authorities and Governments since 1905 to promote resettlement to the Outer Islands. About 3 million may have been resettled in this way during this century. Among these, there have been returns to areas of origin, but the phenomenon is not well measured. There have also been spontaneous migration flows to the newly developed areas (also not well known).

Studies show that the transmigration program has resulted in substantial deforestation, but illustrate the point that deforestation must be seen in context: the initial amount of forest cover must be taken into account, and this was and remains much higher in the Outer Islands; also, the value one places on an intact forest cover must be compared with the value of a transformed environment (e.g. in agricultural production).

The criteria for such a comparison must be clear and comprehensive, and Government bodies are the right place to make such choices taking into account long-term national interests. The population of Indonesia continues to grow at the pace of 3 million per year. Accommodating that growth in a sustainable manner clearly requires ever more careful planning.

Viet Nam

Viet Nam has a rather high population density (over 220 hab./km2) and, as crop land covers only 20% of its territory, the density per hectare of crop land reaches 11 persons, the highest in southeast Asia (UNDP, 1995). At the same time the economy is still heavily natural resource-based. Rural population represents 80% of the total and most of it derives its subsistence directly from agriculture, fisheries and forestry. But agricultural productivity is generally low (rice yields, for instance, are less than half those of China) so exploitation is largely extensive, requiring continuous land clearing in increasingly sensitive areas.

By all accounts, natural resources are heavily affected. Forest degradation, generally indicated at the main problem, proceeds "largely unhindered" under the impact of arable land expansion, fuelwood consumption, commercial logging, shifting cultivation and fire damage. It is estimated to cause the loss of about 200,000 ha of forest each year out of less than 10 million hectares remaining standing (SRV, 1992).

Out of the total land area 31% is degraded, including 21% strongly or severely degraded. For the most part (2/3) this is due to deforestation itself, which enables or accelerates water erosion; the rest is due to various forms of inadequate soil management, causing chemical degradation (mainly acidification and salinization) or more erosion.

Another crucial class of problems for a country such as Viet Nam is the "destruction of wetland ecosystems, the careless exploitation of aquatic resources, the misuse of water resources and the reduction of biological diversity" (SRV, 1993). Indeed, "because of their fishery breeding and nurturing functions, the loss of wetland forests (mangrove and back mangrove) is in many ways more serious than that of the upland forests or watersheds" (World Bank, 1995).

All the relevant official documents designate population pressure as the main factor in the depletion of forest resources and degradation of soil quality (SRV, 1992), along with the "shifting agricultural practices of ethnic minorities, and unsustainable felling for logs and firewood" but also the legacy of "years of war [...] and the absence of effective corrective measures" (SRV, 1993). Population concentration in coastal areas is linked to the depletion of fisheries, loss of mangrove forests, pollution of water resources, and saline intrusions due to the overuse of aquifers (SRV, 1992). Another type of problem is that of urban environments, characterized by water and air pollution from unchecked industrial and domestic sewage, with distinct health implications. Population pressure in this case contributes to growing imbalances between pollutant production and the limited sewerage and water treatment facilities (SRV, 1992).

Published analyses, however, do not go beyond the concern for an overall pressure of human numbers on natural resources, social infrastructure or investment resources. Little if any attention appears to have been given to finer aspects of population dynamics such as differential growth by geographic area, by socio-economic category, by ethnic group or by age group. The patterns of migration and their role in urbanization seem insufficiently known, as is the way population movements affect infrastructure use or the shaping of markets.


Cruz, W. and M.C. Cruz (1990): "Population pressure and deforestation in the Philippines", "ASEAN Economic Bulletin" Vol. 7 No. 2, pp. 200-212.

Government of Indonesia (1985): "Forest policies in Indonesia". Jakarta.

Jagannathan, N.V. (1990): "Poverty-environment linkages: case study of West Java". Washington, The World Bank.

Jing Neng Li (1993): "Significant impacts of population growth on economic development and the environment in China", in Population, environment and development, pp. 88-95. New York, UN.

Myers, N. (1992): "Population, resources and the environment. The critical challenges". New York, UNFPA.

Shen Yimin (1994): "An initial look into China's population, environment and sustainable development". Cairo.

SRV (1992): "National Report to the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development".

SRV (1993): "Vietnam: a development perspective". Prepared for the Donor Conference.

UNDP (1995): "Environment and natural resource management. Strategy and action plan for UNDP Vietnam". 2nd edition.

World Bank (1989): "Indonesia - Forest, land and water: issues in sustainable development". Washington.

World Bank (1990): "Indonesia: sustainable development of forests, land and water". Washington.

World Bank (1995): "Viet Nam. Environmental program and policy priorities for a socialist economy in transition". Two volumes. Washington.

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