Asia's 'Tectonic' Population and Health Challenges

While Asia's continued economic rise is a given, other megatrends in the region such as aging populations, urbanization and changing health issues will create major challenges, the president of the East-West Center in Hawaii told business leaders at the Asia-Pacific Business Symposium in Honolulu.

Dr. Charles E. Morrison called the developments "tectonic movements." For example, by 2050 more than 40 percent of Japan's population is projected to be over 60 years old, while fewer than 9 percent will be younger than 15, according to Japanese government statistics. "The human race has never seen this kind of demographic profile before," Morrison said. "There are uncertainties about how to handle the enormous challenges Asian countries face."

The symposium was co-sponsored by the East-West Center and the Pacific Basin Economic Council with support from the APEC 2011 Hawaii Host Committee. The two-day event is being held alongside the APEC 2011 Leaders Week. Leaders of the 21 economies that belong to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation are gathering in Honolulu, Hawaii, this week.

Morrison quoted statistics showing that Asia's share of the world's gross product could reach 50 percent by 2050. The region's economic rise has led to huge growth in other areas, such as enrollment in higher education. By 2007, South Korea's enrollment ratio had exceeded 90 percent, he noted, compared to a little over 80 percent in the United States.

Other megatrends include urban growth. In 1950 only one city in East Asia exceeded a population of 10 million. By 2008, there were 10 such cities according to population estimates, with Tokyo's GDP exceeding that of Canada. At the same time these megacities have become more vulnerable to natural and man-made disasters.

Asia's growing populations and economies will put tremendous pressure on the world's resources, Morrison said. By 2020, the Congressional Research Service predicts, the Asia Pacific region will consume more than 25 million barrels of oil per day, while North America will use around 16 million barrels. The International Energy Agency estimates that by 2050 developing Asia will own more than half the world's automobiles.

Booming populations have led to water scarcity in many areas of Asia. Chinese eat three times more meat per year than they did 25 years ago, for example, and much more water is needed to produce meat calories.

Changes in diet and lifestyle have led to "tectonic" health challenges, Morrison said. While traditional health risks such as cholera have dropped, new infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS and avian flu have emerged, as well as chronic diseases such as diabetes. Several Pandemics since 1919 – including Spanish flu, SARS and Avian flu – started in Southern China and Southeast Asia. One reason is the exploding populations of people and animals living in close proximity.

Morrison said APEC provides a regional architecture that can lead to constructive relationships for tackling these challenges.

(The EAST-WEST CENTER promotes better relations and understanding among the people and nations of the United States, Asia, and the Pacific through cooperative study, research, and dialogue. Established by the U.S. Congress in 1960, the Center serves as a resource for information and analysis on critical issues of common concern, bringing people together to exchange views, build expertise, and develop policy options.)