General summary Asia

Geography, climate and population

The total area of the region is about 20.4 million kmē, which is 15 percent of the total land area of the world (Table 1). China and India together represent about 63 percent of this area.

Table 1

The total population of the region was estimated in 1996 at 3 030 900 920 inhabitants, about 53 percent of the world’s population (Table 1). China and India are the most populous and the second most populous countries in the world respectively, together accounting for about 38 percent of the world’s population. The annual demographic growth rate in Asia was estimated for the period 1995-96 at 1.5 percent compared to 1.4 percent for the whole world.

The population of Asia is predominantly rural: about 67 percent of the total, compared to 54 percent for the world as a whole. This percentage rises to 70 percent if Japan and the Republic of Korea are excluded (the two countries where industry predominates and the rural population is only 21 percent). This reflects the importance of agriculture in countries where the contribution of the agricultural sector to the GDP is almost 30 percent, and where the percentage of the economically active population engaged in agriculture is about 62 percent.

The population density in the Asian countries was estimated in 1996 at 149 inhabitants/kmē, compared to an average of 43 inhabitants/kmē for the world as a whole. The highest population densities are in Maldives and Bangladesh with 878 and 834 inhabitants/kmē respectively, while the lowest densities are in Mongolia and Papua New Guinea with 2 and 10 inhabitants/kmē respectively.

Indian subcontinent

The Indian subcontinent with an area of 3 961 680 kmē represents about 18 percent of the total area of the region. It is made up of India, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Maldives. The geomorphology of these countries consists of a large portion of floodplains along the Indus and Ganges river basins, some terraces and hilly areas, and the mountainous terrain of the Himalayas, with the world’s highest peak (Mount Everest, 8 848 m) located in the Nepal Himalayas.

The sub-region experiences a tropical monsoon climate, with significant seasonal variations in rainfall and temperature. About 80 percent of the total precipitation occurs during the monsoon period. The climatic year includes two monsoon periods: the southwest monsoon (June to September) concentrating most of the rainfall, and the northeast monsoon (November to March), relatively light compared to the southwest monsoon. The highest temperatures are registered during the dry season (generally from March to May) with 43° C in Bangladesh and 40° C in the northwest regions of India.

The average annual precipitation in the sub-region is about 1 279 mm, varying from less than 150 mm in the northwest desert of Rajasthan, in India, to more than 10 m in the Khasi hills in northeast India.

The population was estimated in 1996 at 1 106 849 000 inhabitants (74 percent rural). The population density is about 300 inhabitants/kmē; Bangladesh and Maldives being the most densely populated countries of the region. The population growth rate in the region varies from 1.15 percent in Sri Lanka to 3.1 percent in Bhutan.

Eastern Asia

The Eastern Asia sub-region includes China, Mongolia and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPR Korea). It extends over an area of 11 285 070 kmē, which is about 55 percent of the total area covered by this survey and 8.4 percent of the world area. This region is mainly mountainous with about 80 percent of the landmass lying above the mean altitude of 1 000 m above sea level.

Apart from east and south China, where the climate is determined by the monsoon, the region is generally characterized by long cold winters caused by the north and northwest winds from Siberia with temperatures ranging from -20° C to -40° C. Precipitations are more important in the summer months (May/June to August/September). Large parts of south Mongolia and central China suffer from a very arid climate and are facing severe water scarcity problems.

The average annual precipitation in the sub-region is 597 mm, varying from less than 25 mm in the Tarim and Qaidam basins in China to 1 520 mm in DPR Korea. Among the factors affecting agricultural production in the region are low soil moisture and air humidity in spring and early summer, and frosts in spring and autumn.

The total population was 1 263 255 000 inhabitants in 1996, with China accounting for almost 98 percent of this total. The population density is 112 inhabitants/kmē, varying from 1.6 inhabitants/kmē in DPR Korea to 129 inhabitants/kmē in China. The contribution of agriculture to GNP is decreasing mainly due to the industrialization of DPR Korea and China. However, 70 percent of the total economically active population are engaged in agriculture.

Far East

The Far East sub-region includes Japan and the Republic of Korea. The total area is 477 060 kmē, or 2 percent of the total area of the region. Mountains cover almost 70 percent of the total area. The Fuji Mountain in Japan is the highest point at 3 776 m.

The climate in the region shows four distinct seasons. Winds and the mountainous topography divide the landmass into two typical climatic zones: the Pacific coast zone, marked by the summer monsoon which blows from the Pacific Ocean bringing warmer temperatures and rain, and the continental zone, characterized by the winter monsoon from the Asian continent, which brings freezing temperatures and heavy snowfalls. The average annual precipitation in the region is 1 634 mm; most falling during the summer months from June to September. The region is often struck by typhoons which cause severe crop damage mainly during the summer and early autumn.

In 1996, the total population was estimated at 170 665 920 inhabitants (21 percent rural). The population density is the highest in the region with an average of 358 inhabitants/kmē due to the concentration of the population in the urban areas. Typically, farm households are made up of part-time farmers who earn additional income from other jobs. The contribution of the agricultural sector to GDP is very low compared to the other countries of Asia (2 percent in Japan and 6.5 percent in the Republic of Korea).


The Southeast sub-region with an area of 1 939 230 kmē, or 9.5 percent of the total area of the region, is composed of Myanmar and the four riparian countries of the lower Mekong basin (Cambodia, Thailand, Viet Nam and Lao PDR). Mountains and hills are the main physiographical features, covering about two-thirds of the total area, with the highest point situated at 5 800 m above sea level in the extreme north of Myanmar. The extensive plains along the Mekong, Red and Ayeyarwady river are frequently subject to flooding.

The climate is mainly governed by the alternance between the wet season characterized by the southwest monsoon (May to October) with heavy rainfall, and the dry season characterized by the northeast monsoon (November to February) which is relatively cool and dry. About 75 percent of the total rainfall occurs during the wet season. This results in a large difference in the water level in rivers between the wet and the dry seasons: the water level in the Mekong River may differ by up to 20 m between the two seasons. The average annual rainfall in the region is 1 877 mm, ranging from 500 mm in the central dry zone in Myanmar and 650 mm in Phan Rang in Viet Nam to more than 4 000 mm in the mountains of Rakhine in Myanmar and Bac Quang in Viet Nam.

The total population was estimated at 195 114 000 inhabitants (78 percent rural). The population density is 101 inhabitants/kmē, ranging from 4 inhabitants/kmē in Mondul Kiri in northeast Cambodia to 1 085 inhabitants/kmē in the Red River Delta in Viet Nam. Agriculture constitute the largest sector in the economy of the region accounting for about 40 percent of GDP and employing more than 67 percent of the total economically active population.


This sub-region includes the countries of the Indian and North Pacific oceans from Malaysia to Papua New Guinea and characterized by their insular nature. Its land area extends over 3 002 930 kmē, which is about 15 percent of the total area under survey. The relief is dominated by extensive lowland plains and swamps, which contrast sharply with high mountain ranges, with the highest point situated at 5 030 m above sea level in the volcanic mountains of Indonesia.

The climate of the region is tropical and monsoonal, characterized by the uniformity of temperature (27° C throughout the year) and high humidity (varying from 70 to 80 percent). The region is under the influence of two main air streams: the northeast monsoon, blowing from October to March, and responsible for heavy rainfall, and the southwest monsoon occurring between May and September. Many islands of the region are liable to extensive flooding and typhoon damage during a period extending from June to September. The average rainfall in this region is 2 823 mm, ranging from less than 1 000 mm in Port Moresby to more than 8 000 mm in some mountainous areas in Papua New Guinea.

In 1996, the total population was estimated at 295 017 000 inhabitants (58 percent rural), which represents about 10 percent of the total population of Asia. The annual growth rate varies from 1.7 percent in Indonesia to 4.4 percent in Brunei. The population is unevenly distributed and is mainly concentrated along the coastal areas. The average population density in the region is 98 inhabitants/kmē. The agricultural sector contributes on average about 20 percent of GDP, and employs almost 49 percent of the total economically active population.

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