The ASEAN region is endowed with rich natural resources that sustain essential life support systems both for the region and the world. Apart from providing water, food, and energy, these natural resources play an important role in sustaining a wide range of economic activities and livelihoods.
The region, however, is confronted by immense environmental degradation due to increased population, rapid economic growth, combined with the existing and region-wide social inequities among the ASEAN countries, which has also led to increased consumption of resources and generation of waste, resulting in unsustainable development. Therefore, despite an abundance of natural resources, ASEAN, as elsewhere, is facing an enormous challenge in keeping a delicate balance of environmental sustainability and economic development.
The region is blessed with a variety of unique ecosystems such as the Mekong River Basin, Ha Long Bay, and Lake Toba. The region has a long coastline, measuring about 173,000 kilometers in total, and is surrounded by major seas and gulfs such as the South China Sea, the Andaman Sea and the Gulf of Thailand.
ASEAN has a total forest cover of 211,172,000 ha (2012), and a total protected area of 432,563,000 ha, which accounts for 14% of the total land area (2014). ASEAN region is home to around 60% of the worlds tropical peatlands and 42% of the worlds mangrove forests.
By virtue of its location in the tropics, ASEAN region is also endowed with abundant freshwater resources. In 2014, the region had a total capacity of 4,986 billion cubic meters of internal renewable water resources, with Brunei Darussalam, Lao PDR and Myanmar having the highest per capita water resource availability.
While occupying only 3 percent of the worlds total land area, the region is renowned for its rich biological heritage, comprising the three (of the worlds 17) mega biodiversity countries, namely Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, which together represent around 80 percent of global biological diversity.
The region has the highest proportion of endemic bird and mammal species (9% and 11%) and the second highest proportion of endemic vascular plant species (25%) compared to the tropical regions of Meso-America, South America, and sub-Saharan Africa. More than two thousand species have been discovered in the ASEAN region over the past two decades.
In terms of marine biodiversity, the region hosts the world’s center for marine biodiversity, otherwise known as the Coral Triangle, and has the most extensive and diverse coral reefs in the world, which accounts for more than 28% (almost 70,000 km2) of the global total.
In terms of demography, ASEAN is highly populated. In 2015, the region had about 629 million people (11.6% of the world’s population) with a density of 142 people per square kilometer, almost three times higher than the world’s average at 56.63 people per square kilometer. Population density is especially high in megacities such as Jakarta and Manila at about 10,000 people per square kilometer, spurred by increasing rural-urban migration and rapid urbanisation. ASEAN’s population is growing at a slightly higher rate of 1.3% in 2015 compared to that of the world’s average of 1.18%. The ASEAN’s population is expected to reach 741 million people by 2035 and 785 million by 2050.
The current urban population accounts for about 47% of the total population and it is expected to reach 63% by 2050. This is true except for Singapore, Brunei Darussalam, and Malaysia which are highly urbanized with more than 75% of the population living in urban areas.
Increased population, rapid economic growth, combined with the existing and region-wide social inequities among the ASEAN countries have essentially exerted increasing pressures on the natural resources of the region and brought along various common or transboundary environmental issues, such as air, water and land pollution, urban environmental degradation, transboundary haze pollution, and depletion of natural resources, particularly biological diversity. It has also led to increased consumption of resources and generation of waste, resulting in unsustainable development. Therefore, despite an abundance of natural resources, ASEAN, as elsewhere, is facing an enormous challenge in keeping a delicate balance of environmental sustainability and economic development.