1. Population and natural resources conditions

As a basic factual background for this review, Table 1 reports [a] basic demographic characteristics of the countries covered by the CST for Central and South Asia, and [b] per caput availability of some basic natural resources by country.1/

1.1 Demographic characteristics

The total population of the area is about 1,420 million (in 1996). The countries are extremely heterogeneous from the demographic standpoint:

* Half of them are in the 0-20 million inhabitants range, while another is close to one billion inhabitants.

* The average population growth rate is moderately high (2.1%), but individual rates actually vary from the low (0.5%) to the extremely high (almost 6%).

* The region is largely rural (on average, the urban proportion is 29% only for the 15 countries) but one third of the countries have more than 40% urban population.

* Rates of growth of the urban population are moderate on the whole (under 3% in eight cases) but exceed 7% in two cases.

These diverse demographic conditions imply that countries are likely to 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.; the next section looks at population "density" as related to key resources: land, forests and renewable water.

1.2 Natural resources availability

Unit land resources are much below the world average of 0.26 hectare per person in most countries (the exceptions being Afghanistan and Iran). Bangladesh, Bhutan and the Maldives are particularly disadvantaged from this standpoint. This is part the consequence of unfavourable natural conditions in several countries (e.g. presence of deserts or of 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 a widespread phenomenon in the region, as will be seen in subsequent sections (2.1, 3.3) of this paper.

The situation is again very mixed with regard to water resources. Probably six countries have less than half the world average of 20 cubic meters (m) per caput per day; others (e.g. Bhutan, Bangladesh, Turkmenistan are much better off). But, apart from comparison purposes, this index is not the most telling, because the distribution of water resources across space and time may be quite different from the geographical distribution of population and the seasonal pattern of its requirements; this reduces the resources actually available for all practical purposes (thus, a large river apparently represents a big resource; but it is so only to people living close to it, and the usefulness is not at all proportional to its flow, especially in times of floods). In the end, "usable flow is substantially less than runoff. Water supply scarcity may become a major constraint on socio-economic development at levels of use substantially below total runoff" (Cox, 1989).

It is more interesting therefore to consider how this group of countries fares with respect to the classical scale of competition for water, which was built from observations on the actual problems of areas whose resources and needs were well documented:2/

* Population pressures under 600 persons per flow unit (p/fu; 1 fu = 1 million cubic meters) are not considered a serious issue, although water quality problems and dry season supply problems may occur.

* Between 600 and 1000 P/FU, chances of more recurrent quantitative or/and qualitative supply problems increase notably: this is called the "water stress" stage.

* Between 1000 and 2000 P/FU such problems are common and affect human and economic development; this is the "absolute scarcity" stage.

* 2000 P/FU is seen as the maximum population pressure that can be handled in the present state of technology and management capabilities; it has been labelled "water barrier".

Of course this is a crude standard that needs to be qualified based on knowledge of local conditions: "in the humid zones, a competition level of 600 might signal the beginning of water allocation problems. In arid conditions, the problem is more complex because of considerable seasonal variations in rainfall. The largest need for irrigation water is during the dry season when the water accessible to people can be as low as 10 percent of the annual flow. Even countries with an average competition level of only 50 [...] have considerable allocation problems during the dry season". In addition, "national figures do not reflect the stress on water resources quality in local areas exerted by rapid urbanization and industrialization" (Falkenmark and Widstrand, 1992).

With the above warning in mind, none of the countries reviewed here for which data were available was in the danger zone as of 1995, although Iran was close (600 p/fu correspond to 4.6 m3/person/day). Naturally, water resources being fixed, population growth gradually leads countries towards that zone.

In fact, the above concepts have been used to forecast levels of water competition in 2025 for all countries based on recent population projections and water supply estimates (Engelman and LeRoy, 1993). These calculations show that Afghanistan and India will be in the water stress zone at that date, and that Iran will be in the absolute scarcity zone (less than 2.7 m3/person/day). Pakistan and Sri Lanka will reach the water stress stage shortly after 2025.