Posted September 1996
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.
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".
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.