Asia-Pacific reaches demographic milestone as world population hits 7 billion

Asia and the Pacific is undergoing major demographic transformation, according to United Nations statistical data released here today.

“At some point this month, October 2011, a child will be born and the world’s population will have reached seven billion. There is a good chance that this birth will take place in our region, home to 61% of the World’s population,” said Dr. Noeleen Heyzer, Under-Secretary General of the United Nations and Executive Secretary of the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) at the launch of ESCAP’s flagship statistics publication. “If the child is born in the Asia-Pacific region, it will most likely be a boy.”

Estimates in the Statistical Yearbook for Asia and the Pacific 2011 show that in 2010, among children below the age of five, there were 110 boys for every 100 girls which is much higher than the natural sex ratio, and higher than any other region of the world.

East and North-East Asia has the highest ratio of 119, followed by South and South-West Asia with a ratio of 108.

“Prevailing family structures, culture, policy incentives and the available technology combine to make parents in some countries prefer boys over girls and act on that preference,” added Dr. Heyzer. “This is an alarming trend that reflects existing social practices of gender discrimination and neglect, and has serious consequences for the demographics of the future.” Gender inequalities in the Asia-Pacific region are also evident in education, employment, property ownership and decision-making. Women account for 65 per cent of the 518 million illiterate people in the region, and only eight girls are enrolled in secondary school for every ten boys. Female participation in the labour force in the region has remained unchanged for almost 20 years with 65 employed women per 100 employed men. Women have very limited access to land ownership in at least eight Asia-Pacific countries. In all but two countries in the region, women hold less than 30 per cent of national level political positions.

The report also reveals for the first time in recorded history, the Asia-Pacific fertility rate was equal to the replacement rate of 2.1 (live births per woman). Replacement level fertility means that women give birth to the exact number of babies that would be needed to replace themselves. This means that this generation is not producing enough children to replace itself which will lead to reductions in population in the future.

ESCAP estimates published in its online database along with the Yearbook also project the regional fertility rate to drop below the replacement level by 2015, if current trends continue. Thus, without immigration, the next generation of people in Asia and the Pacific will be fewer in number, implying a decline in the region’s population in future.

The low Asia-Pacific birth rate, together with increased life expectancies, also mean a greying population with a 34 per cent increase in the proportion of elderly in the last two decades, a more drastic increase than all other regions except Latin America and the Caribbean. An ageing population changes the relative burden on different generations and has implications for social welfare demands, including healthcare.

Social development gains; dynamic economic growth comes at environmental cost

While the Asia-Pacific region has recorded high economic growth over the last few decades, this has had adverse environmental impacts. According to ESCAP estimates in the Yearbook, despite reductions in the carbon intensiveness of production, in 2008, Asia-Pacific countries accounted for almost half the world’s CO2 emissions compared to 40 per cent a decade ago. The proportion of primary forests in the region over this period has declined by more than 10 per cent.

There have been improvements in health and living conditions in the region, including a reduction in extreme poverty, increased access to water and sanitation, a decrease in maternal and child mortality as well as a decline in new infections of HIV, tuberculosis and malaria. Socio-economic progress, however, has been mixed. The Yearbook notes that “total expenditure on health as a percentage of GDP in the region declined in recent years (in contrast to all other regions) demonstrating that per capita [health] expenditure in the region has not kept pace with economic growth”.
The Yearbook cautions that due to a lack of relevant, reliable and timely data, many drivers and consequences of development are still not well understood. ESCAP is working with countries in the region to address these gaps in statistics to improve the evidence-basis for public policy making.

The Statistical Yearbook for Asia and the Pacific 2011 and a database are available from http://www.unescap.org/stat. The ESCAP online database and Yearbook contain internationally comparable data on population, environment, state of the economy and connectivity for the Asia-Pacific region, including national, subregional, regional and global statistics, to place Asia-Pacific developments in the global context.

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