This is an important year for sustainable development. Within just six months remaining, countries all over the world will have to make decisions that will set pathways for global wellbeing.
With the upcoming Third International Conference on Financing for Development in mid-2015 as well as the adoption of the United Nations (UN) post-2015 development agenda in September, and a new global climate change agreement in December, it is hardly surprising that economist Jeffrey Sachs describes 2015 as offering “a unique opportunity for our generation to set clear goals and clear pathways to a safer, better, more prosperous world.”
One particular global issue that matters to sustainable development and should be addressed in the post-2015 development agenda is population dynamics, including rapid population growth. The current population trend is particularly worrying for the Asia-Pacific region, already home to more than four billion people, or almost 60 percent of the global population. This number is expected to increase to five billion by 2050.
This huge population in the Asia-Pacific poses a tremendous environmental challenge, and an increase in the population and human activities in the region will place an even greater pressure on the region’s already strained natural resources. The ecological problems that might arise from that pressure include water scarcity, biodiversity loss, water and air pollution, global warming, and climate change.
On the issue of climate change, the Asia-Pacific is not only home to three of the six world’s largest greenhouse gas emitters, it is also among the regions most vulnerable to climate change.
According to the UN, climate variability and extreme weather are expected to have major impacts on the Asia-Pacific, increasing the magnitude and intensity of natural disasters in the region. Climate change itself has been identified as the biggest threat to the “livelihoods, security, and well-being” of the people of the Pacific’s Small Island Developing States.
In fact, the effects of climate change – including rising sea levels – have already threatened a number of islands in the Asia-Pacific. As an illustration, around 50-80 percent of the land area in Maldives and Papua New Guinea have less than 1 meter above mean sea level, meaning that climate change and its pronounced impact on sea levels could threaten the survival of islanders in these low-lying island nations.
Vulnerability to Energy Conflict
The issue of rapid population growth will be less of a problem if the Earth has enough resources and ecosystems to sustain the entire human lives on the planet. Sadly, this is not the case.
The large population size and the rising affluence of Asia-Pacific countries are the main drivers of the sustained rise in energy demand. World energy demand is projected to rise 50 percent over the next ten years, half of it coming from two Asia-Pacific countries: China and India. Of 121 million barrels of oil expected to be consumed daily in 2025, more than 50 percent will be used in the Asia-Pacific. This heavy dependence on energy increases the region’s vulnerability to conflict over energy resources.
The Asia-Pacific region itself is not new to such conflicts. Apart from a desire to control one of the world’s most critical trade routes, many analysts believe that the ongoing territorial disputes in the South China Sea are very much a competition over local resources. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the SCS holds both proven and probable reserves of more than 10 billion barrels of oil and more than 180 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Unexplored areas in the SCS may also contain additional hydrocarbons resources.
Domino Effect: Clean Water Crisis and Food Insecurity
Another impact of rapid population growth in the Asia-Pacific is water scarcity and insecurity. Alongside other factors such as climate change, urbanization, and water-related disasters, population growth is threatening water security in the region.
Take China, for instance, which accounts of 19 percent of the total global population, but which has only around 7 percent of global water resources. Not that size matters: Small nations like Tuvalu have also experienced critical shortages of fresh drinking water, at one point putting the country in a state of emergency for a couple of weeks.
Water security is also linked closely to the issue of health. As clean water becomes scarce, the likelihood of people consuming unsafe drinking water increases, putting them at risk of waterborne diseases, including typhoid fever and cholera. According to the 2006 Human Development Report, diseases caused by unclean water and poor sanitation kill approximately 1.8 million children each year.
Problems with water can eventually lead to food insecurity. Water is crucial to the agriculture industry, which makes it vital to food supplies. As the global population rate increases, so does global demand for food, placing great pressure on the world’s water supply.
According to the UN, 70 percent of freshwater supply is used for irrigation. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has already alerted the Asia-Pacific region to the risk of food insecurity. An FAO report indicates that out of 925 million malnourished people worldwide, around 570 million live in the Asia-Pacific. Among this number, roughly 90 percent live in India, China, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, and the Philippines. It is worth noting that the five countries with the highest number of malnourished people are amongst the top ten most populous countries in the world.
Considering the complex and multidimensional challenges of population growth as well as its potential domino-like repercussions for hundreds of millions of people across the region, it makes sense for population issues to be included in the UN post-2015 development agenda.
After all, as the UN Population Fund rightly states, “Without adequate understanding of how the world is changing from a demographic perspective, forward-looking planning and agenda setting will be of little value.”
Silvany Pasaribu is a graduate of the Master of International Studies Program, University of Sydney. The views expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not represent the views of institutions with which she may be associated.