Population People

Posted September 1996

Population Change-Natural Resources-Environment Linkages in Central And South Asia

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

Population and natural resources conditions

The total population of the area (Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives) is about 1,420 million. These 15 countries are extremely heterogeneous from the demographic standpoint. Half of them are under 20 million inhabitants in size, while another is close to 1,000 million. The average population growth rate is moderately high (2.1%), but individual rates vary from 0.5% to almost 6%. The region is largely rural (71% on average) but five countries have more than 40% urban population. Rates of growth of the urban population are moderate on the whole but excede 7% in two cases.

These diverse conditions imply that countries face very different situations with regard to the distribution of population among sources of livelihood, level and trend of population pressure on natural and investment resources, etc.

Land resources are much below the world average of 0.26 hectare per person in most countries. This is in part the consequence of unfavourable natural conditions (e.g. deserts, infertile mountainous areas) and in part that of continued population growth which has driven population densities to high levels.

Per caput forest and woodland resources are also very limited, and far below the world average of 0.75 hectare, with the sole exception of Bhutan. As a matter of fact, deforestation is widespread in the region.

The situation is very mixed with regard to water resources. With respect to the classical scale of competition for water (stress/absolute scarcity/water barrier) no country is in the danger zone - although Iran is close. Naturally, water resources being fixed, population growth gradually leads countries towards that zone. In 2025 Afghanistan and India will be in the water stress zone, and Iran will be in the absolute scarcity zone (less than 2.7 m2/person/day); Pakistan and Sri Lanka will reach the water stress stage a little later.

Population and environment issues

The two most widespread problems are the pollution of water resources (by industrial discharges, household waste, sewage or agricultural chemicals) and deforestation (under the impact of clearing for shifting agriculture, overexploitation for fuelwood and timber collection, and overgrazing). Next come soil erosion (from overgrazing and intensive cultivation) and chemical degradation or pollution (from excessive use of agricultural chemicals.)

Other largely shared problems are water scarcity (induced by mounting population density and growing economic activity in the face of fixed resources), air pollution (mostly by industrial effluents, although urban traffic is also a growing factor), the loss of biodiversity (in shrinking forests as well as in threatened marine and wetland ecosystems) and urban environment problems (from unplanned growth and inability to tackle waste management on the required scale).

Demographic factors are evoked by several countries in connection with their environmental problems. Iran evokes its large population and "demographic explosion". For Pakistan, "accelerating economic and demographic pressures" are one of three factors identified as responsible for the emergence of environmental problems. Bhutan notes that the population "is growing rapidly [... This] increase cannot be easily absorbed by the existing rural or urban communities." For Bangladesh, a "link exists between population, poverty and the environment. High population growth rates lead to more intense use of resources, exacerbating existing scarcities and over-exploitation". The Maldives also cite population growth as one of the factors of environmental problems.

Issues arising from growing human numbers in the face of fixed water resources are indirectly but strongly linked with population growth at the national and urban levels. Such problems are noted by several countries, but usually without explicit mention of population factors. One may also observe that population pressure under fixed or slowly changing technology is a factor in such phenomena as the extension of agriculture, with encroachment on forests or on marginal lands, which accelerates degradation (India, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka), the overexploitation of the wood cover for domestic uses (same countries) and increased pollution by domestic wastes (all 15 countries).

About half of the countries reviewed here mention population policies as a general means to alleviate problems, or more exactly to make them more tractable. Iran cites "pursuing family planning" as one of its priorities on environment and development.

India considers that "population-related issues, which are inextricably linked to the total development of India, (are) a priority [...] Development should lead to a decrease in population growth rates".

In Nepal, "a range of strategies have been put forward including expansion of family planning, [maternal] and child health services, integration of population programmes in other sectoral projects, and expansion of adult education programmes for women.". Bhutan states: "The future socio-economic balance depends on a strictly enforced family planning policy and/or new means of livelihood not directly dependent on the land". In effect, the first government measure mentioned in reaction to these concerns is: "preparing a comprehensive family planning policy".

For Bangladesh, the recommendations of the "environmental strategy for sustainable development" include a series of measures under the heading on population stabilization and poverty alleviation.

Finally, the Maldives emphasize the need to develop "an environmentally sound national population management policy".

Many of the countries state their reliance on environmental education as one of the instruments to halt in the long run environmental degradation. These programmes deserve attention from the population IEC viewpoint, since they provide opportunities to introduce considerations on the linkages between population dynamics and environmental change: Kazakhstan notes the importance of environmental education, which "in order to be more effective, should start at early ages."

For Iran, "promoting environmental education" is one of the cited "priorities on environment and development". Afghanistan also identifies "developing materials to ensure environmental education is to be promoted" as a priority. In Pakistan, the Environment and Urban Affairs Division leads information efforts, while the Pakistan Institute for Labour Education and Resources conducts workers' training. In India, the 1986 National Policy on Education includes a Master Plan for the universal provision of facilities for environmental education, for "there is an urgent need to create widespread awareness".

In Nepal, the Government "accords priority to improving awareness in conservation of natural resources and sustainable development at all levels through formal and non-formal education". Bangladesh emphasizes "targeting women through environmental awareness, literacy and birth control campaigns" to "help break the vicious circle" of rapid population growth, poverty and environmental degradation. Finally, Sri Lanka also states its commitment to "strengthening environmental education".

Land degradation and its factors

This part covers the eight countries of South Asia only; for five of these countries the incidence of degradation is above world average, sometimes much higher. Iran and Sri Lanka are the most affected, then India and Afghanistan.

Soil erosion under the action of water is the main form of land degradation in the countries reviewed, affecting 25% of the total area under crops and pastures. Wind erosion affects 48% of the land under crops and pasture in the dry zone (60% in Iran). Chemical degradation (salinization, loss of soil fertility, pollution) has a high impact in some countries, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka in particular; salinization affects more than half of all agricultural land in Iran.

Barring natural hazards, the causes of land degradation comprise direct and underlying causes. Direct causes are inappropriate land use and management practices. Underlying causes are the reasons why these inappropriate practices take place. The following direct causes of land degradation have been considered: deforestation and removal of natural vegetation; over-exploitation of wood cover for domestic use; overgrazing; and agricultural activities.

Deforestation causes degradation when the land is steeply sloping or has shallow or easily erodible soils, and when clearance is not followed by good management. It is the dominant cause in six out of eight countries here (the exceptions are Iran and Afghanistan). If absolute annual losses were to continue at their current pace, the forests of Bangladesh would be entirely gone by 2011 and those of Pakistan by 2015.

Overcutting of vegetation to obtain timber, fuelwood and other products is frequent in semi-arid environments, where fuelwood shortages are often severe. The phenomenon is significant in three countries here; it is the leading factor in Iran.

Overgrazing causes a decrease in vegetation cover which is a leading cause of erosion. It is a significant factor in six countries, and by far the most important in Afghanistan.

Agricultural activities that cause land degradation include shifting cultivation without adequate fallow periods, absence of soil conservation measures, cultivation of fragile lands, unbalanced fertilizer use, and a host of possible problems arising from faulty planning or management of irrigation. They are a major factor in Sri Lanka and the dominant one in Bangladesh.

The role of population factors in land degradation processes obviously occurs in the context of the underlying causes. In the region, it is indeed one of the two major basic causes of degradation along with land shortage, and land shortage itself ultimately is a consequence of continued population growth in the face of the finiteness of land resources. In the context of land shortage the growing population pressure, during 1980-1990, has led to decreases in the already small areas of agricultural land per person in six out of eight countries (14% for India and 22% for Pakistan).

Population pressure also operates through other mechanisms. Improper agricultural practices, for instance, occur only under constraints such as the saturation of good lands under population pressure which leads settlers to cultivate too shallow or too steep soils, plough fallow land before it has recovered its fertility, or attempt to obtain multiple crops by irrigating unsuitable soils.

Population-environment linkages and population programmes

Population programmes ought to be responsive to population-environment problems and linkages. Possible activities in this context are the following:
  1. Assessing the role of population dynamics and other factors with respect to prevailing trends in water supply issues, land degradation, deforestation.

  2. Assessing the impact of urban expansion on the state of natural resources (cropland, forests, water).

  3. Assessing changes in the quality of urban environment (access to water and sanitation, infrastructure, equipment) and assess their reciprocal causal relationships with the demographic dynamics of the settlements.

  4. Advocacy to raise the awareness of government and civil servants regarding priority linkages of population dynamics and environmental change at the national and sub-national levels, and achieve a clear recognition of the need to develop relevant policies.

  5. Based on country characteristics, identify specific environmental indicators integrating population dimensions. Look into the feasibility of spatially disaggregated indicators. Set up data collection and processing systems. Where feasible, build retrospective time series for these indicators.

  6. Assess current dimensions of population pressure on water resources: count population by watershed area, assess broad patterns of use by sector.

  7. Identify the vulnerable populations with regard to specific environmental issues, e.g. pollution, water supply problems, deforestation.

  8. Project the impact of population change on various environmental goods (e.g. cropland, building areas, water resources, forests) under alternative scenarios of population growth, urbanization, consumption patterns.

  9. Capacity building (e.g., interdisciplinary workshops with exercises in formulating environment and development strategies).

  10. Support to monitoring activities, including at the methodological level (design of indicators, problems related to the collection of data on population and environment etc.).

  11. IEC activities addressing the general public could derive arguments e.g. from the impact of environmental degradation on people's health. Field experiences in communication campaigns focused on such themes, built upon assessments of the people's perceptions regarding environmental change, can be utilized with profit in new contexts.
Needs for these various inputs to country policies should be systematically assessed in the context of programming at the country level.

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