Home Articles Exploring compatibilities – Geoinformatics in South and East

Exploring compatibilities – Geoinformatics in South and East

Prof Karl Harmsen


Prof Karl Harmsen
Director, Centre for space science and Technology Education in Asia and the Pacific (cssteap), affiliated to the United Nations, Dehradun, India
Email: [email protected]

The paper highlights some of the trends in economic development as well as in environmental and natural resource management in South and East Asia expected on the basis of data available from the World Bank and indicates where knowledge, in particular, space science and technology and geo-informatics, could play a role in developing options for poverty alleviation, sustainable management of natural resources, and for monitoring and improving environmental quality.

The paper is largely based on the database compiled by the World Bank in association with a large number of United Nations and other international organizations and published annually in their World Development Reports and World Development Indicators. It is known that such global databases have several shortcomings. In fact, several of these are discussed at length in the World Bank reports. On the other hand, if one wishes to make comparisons between countries across one or more regions, one needs a standardized global database and the database compiled by the World Bank seems to be the only one that meets the criteria of a reliable, standardized global database. Nevertheless, it is understood that the significance of many of the numbers may be somewhat limited and therefore they are taken mainly to indicate trends and are not necessarily assumed to accurately reflect the true situation on the ground in the all of the countries concerned.

The World Bank follows a two-tier system for the regional classification of economies: at the highest hierarchical level the countries of the world are divided in high-income versus middle- and low-income economies, where the high-income countries are presented as one category, although in some cases a further distinction is made between countries that are members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and those that are not, or between countries participating in the European Monetary Union (EMU) and those that do not.

At the next hierarchical level, the middle- and low-income countries are further classified according to regional groupings. The present paper will focus on two geographical regions: South Asia and East Asia & the Pacific. These two regions will be compared with the 3 high-income countries in the region: Australia, Japan and New Zealand.

Characterization of the major economies
Some key indicators of the countries in South and East Asia are listed in Table 1. It can be seen that more than half the world population (3,210 out of 6,057 million people in 2000) lives in South and East Asia. Population densities are high, in particular in South Asia. As the rural population tends to concentrate in the river valleys and coastal plains, the actual rural population densities may be much higher. Hence, on arable land, population densities may be very high, and the environment may be affected by heavy use of fertilizers, manure, biocides and machinery, or by narrow crop rotations, salinization of irrigated lands, and other side effects of intensive agriculture. On the non-arable lands, degradation of the environment may occur as a result of lack of vegetational cover, nutrient depletion and deforestation, resulting in enhanced water and wind erosion.

It is well known that a per capita income of $ 440 in South Asia represents a higher purchasing power than the same income in the US. To account for these differences, a methodology has been developed to convert US dollars into “international” or “purchasing power parity” dollars (ppp$), which would then represent the same purchasing power in all countries of the world. These “purchasing power parity” conversion factors are country-specific and are reviewed periodically. For example, for India, the GNI/cap is $ 450, whereas the pppGNI/cap is ppp$ 2340, that is, a factor 5.2 higher. At the same time, the per caita GNI ranking does not change very much, from 159 (GNI/cap) to 153 (pppGNI/cap), as what applies to India, also applies to other countries in the region and worldwide. On the other hand, there are some noticeable differences: For the South Asia region, the per capita GNI is $ 440, whereas the pppGNI/cap is ppp$ 2240, that is, a factor 5.1 higher. In contrast, for Sub-Sahara Africa, the GNI/cap is $ 470 whereas the pppGNI/cap is ppp$ 1044, that is, only a factor 2.2 higher. This reflects, among others, that in South Asia many products are produced or manufactured locally and that the prices of these items are relatively low. In Sub-Sahara Africa, many products are imported (including processed food items, drugs, textiles) and thus their prices are relatively high, which reduces the purchasing power of the dollar in relative terms. Finally, it may be noted that many of the investments required to improve the knowledge and IT infrastructures (e.g., computer hard- and software) are in US dollars and cost practically the same in South or East Asia as they cost in the US.

South Asia seems to be lagging behind, even though enormous progress has been made in the past decade. Although it may be too much to refer to these phenomena as a “digital divide”, there certainly is still a large technological gap between the high-income countries and South and East Asia.

The ability of a country to develop the economy while improving environmental quality depends, among others, on the government finances and the funds available for rural development programs. Further government revenues, expressed as % of GDP, are relatively low in South and East Asia, well below the world average. In addition, many countries in South Asia are faced with high interest payments on current debts (of the order of 32% of current revenues), which further limits funds available for rural and other development programs. In addition, political tension and violence in the region results in high military expenditures in South and, in particular, East Asia, well above the world average.

It is unfortunate that the end of the cold war has not triggered a worldwide concerted effort to eradicate poverty and to implement the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, including articles pertaining to good governance and democracy. The concept that globalization and free market principles would eradicate poverty has not been proven successful in reality: absolute poverty has declined in many areas, but the gap between rich and poor countries, and between rich and poor people in low- and middle-income countries has increased in many countries. It thus seems that globalization and free market principles have to be supplemented by international efforts in concert with national government policies and programmes aimed at alleviating poverty, empowering women and weaker sections of the society, and protecting the environment. There do not seem to be universally accepted definitions for terms such as “good governance” and thus it may even be more difficult to agree on ways to measure such phenomena in practice. Nevertheless, the concept of “good governance” seems important for governments to be effective in implementing policies aimed at sustainable development and poverty alleviation. One effort to measure an important aspect of “good governance” is “the corruption perceptions index” , which refers to the levels of perceived corruption in government and public administration and is published annually by Transparency International (www.transparency.org). Although the significance of this parameter and the associated ratings are, obviously, not universally accepted, it is rather unfortunate that all countries surveyed in the South and East Asian regions (Table 2) score 5.0 or less on a scale of 10 (lowest level of perceived corruption) to 0 (highest level of perceived corruption). Whatever the significance of these data may be, it is unlikely that low scores on the CPI scale will help to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of central government programmes aimed at poverty alleviation.

Natural resources
To characterize the state of the natural resources in South and East Asia, three broad areas will be touched upon: land use and agriculture, freshwater resources, and forests and biodiversity.

Land Use
Arable land, as a percentage of total land area, has been fairly stable during the past 20 years (Table 2), and is much higher in South Asia (42.4%) than in East Asia (11.8%), reflecting relatively favorable terrain conditions and infrastructure development in South Asia, as well as high population densities and high demand for food. In much of East Asia, terrain conditions are less favorable (e.g., extensive mountain areas in China) or infrastructure is less developed and/or population densities are lower (e.g., Mongolia).

The per capita arable land has declined quite dramatically in South Asia, from 0.23 ha to 0.16, that is, by about 30% in 20 years. This clearly demonstrates that increased pressure on the land, as the same land area now has to feed a much higher population. The increased demand for food has largely been met by productivity increases per unit of arable land (and not by expanding the production area). Land under irrigation has increased in South Asia from 28.7 to 40.9% and fertilizer consumption has increased from 36 to 105 kg of nutrients per hectare. The increased availability of water and nutrients, in combination with improved land and crop management, access to markets, etcetera, has resulted in significant increases in productivity, e.g., cereal yield increased from 1.51 to 2.28 mt/ha, that is, by some 50% in 20 years.