Feeding the Beast 


“One time we had the whole world in our hands, but we ate it and burned it and it’s gone now.” 

― Harry Harrison, Make Room! Make Room!

The uneven explosion

Demographers (or rather, those who interpret them) often point out that fertility rates have fallen below the “replacement level” in more than eighty countries. In fact, some fear that we might have to face population decline – the Empty Planet scenario. This leads some, like the American Council on Science and Health to paint a rather rosy picture of overpopulation as a myth, and note that: A child born today will reach middle age in a world in which conditions and expectations are very different from our own. She will find the planet more urban, with less crime, environmentally healthier but with many more old people.

Figure 1: The total fertility rate by country with UN projections 1950 – 2030 (Source: Our World in Data)

However, the regional, near-future narrative is not so rosy. The world, in general, will hit 8.5 billion people by 2030. Today, the Asia Pacific region holds 60% of the world’s population and the two most populous countries in the world – India and China – and a significant chunk of that future growth will come from this region. By 2030, the APAC is expected to host close to 4.5 billion humans. This means that within the bounds of many APAC nation-states, overpopulation is a very real issue; more people are being born and thrown into competition for dwindling resources and living off the same infrastructure.

Indonesia serves as an example of one facet of this growth. Post-2015 analysis points to a population of some 240 million+ and a “stalled fertility decline”: that is, the number of children being born per woman stopped reducing somewhere in the 1990s. As a consequence, Indonesia is projected to keep adding steadily to its population. India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Fiji, and the Philippines are in this same situation, where they keep increasing their population as they stay above a fertility rate of 2.1 births per woman. While in general, fertility rates have reduced from what they were, it will be some time before this growth dips and the actual population starts reducing.

Another facet of this growth comes from China, where the number of children being born has been held constant by authoritarian law. The 2019 “Green Book of Population and Labour” from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences posits a population of 1.44 billion by 2029. Here the growth comes from healthier populations living out longer lifespans: historically high infant mortality rates are reducing, and overall lifespans are increasing [Satellite: THE MORTAL COIL]. This leads to a more ‘aged’ population.

Figure 2: Population projection, 2030 (Source: UN Population Division, 2017 revision)

As a consequence,  until 2030, the APAC region experiences very real growth challenges, including some that seem like statistical curveballs [Satellite: WHERE HAVE ALL THE WOMEN GONE?]. These demographic changes have very interesting implications for the economic interplay globally and within the region [Core: THE NEXT BIG ECONOMY], but we should first examine the basic needs of a population of this size.

Keeping the lights on 

The Asian Development Bank (ADB) expects the energy demand from the region to double by 2030 (compared to what it was in 2005). Current conditions, however, are worrying: UNESCAP, the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, paints a dismal picture in its energy mix reports. Driven by growth, both energy consumption and supply in the region have been growing faster than the world average. As of the latest UNESCAP report, the region consumes over 47% of the world’s energy – and this energy is mostly in the form of fossil fuels. Coal, oil and natural gas account for over 85% of the Total Primary Energy Supply (TPES), with countries in North and Central Asia being even more dependent on fossil fuels than their more Pacific counterparts. Despite the existence of two major energy exporters (Indonesia and Australia), the region is a net importer of significant amounts of energy this way, and has been since 1994.

And we need more. 

Figure 3: Changes in primary energy demand, 2016-40 (Source: World Energy Outlook 2017, International Energy Agency)

Does this mean a future of soot-stained buildings and governments forced to their knees by skyrocketing oil prices? The ADB is optimistic on this front: it forecasts a shift to cleaner energy, perhaps built on the fact that China, India, and 36 other countries have agreed to reduce their dependence on fossil fuels. The ASEAN nations have already agreed to use renewable energy for almost a quarter of their energy needs by 2025. Of all jobs in the renewable energy industry, 62% are in Asia, which means the momentum and the opportunity already exist for channeling economic growth [Core: THE NEXT BIG ECONOMY] and create a strong backbone of new, sustainable jobs. Mike Rios of 17 Triggers highlights an interesting development from Fourth Partner Energy, an Indian social enterprise that covers the upfront cost of solar for other companies, using pay for solar per month and loan schemes to make the transition easier.

Taimur Khilji, Economist and Urban Development Lead, UNDP, points out that given that China is quite serious about its energy mix (moving to cleaner sources), and given China’s significant investment in renewables, it is likely much of Asia will follow this trend; the political economy of this issue would center around whether to buy Chinese technology – versus from other (western) sources.

However, it remains to be seen if renewable energy is the solution to all these problems. Despite all the hype, the reality is that renewables need to generate a lot of electricity: Solar, wind energy and geothermal energy still require significant research before they can provide comparable megawatts per area; much of the optimism around this comes from uninvolved discussants or entrepreneurs with vested stakes. Even in academic circles in the United States, debates rage back and forth over the feasibility of shifting to fully renewable energy. While Fiji has committed to shifting towards renewables and is a strong proponent of the narrative, the reality is that Fiji already had a strong hydropower mix, and the logistics of powering much larger nations like India are far more complicated and require more research and investment. 

Figure 4: Total primary energy demand (TPED) World, in the New Policies scenario (Source: World Energy Outlook 2018, International Energy Agency)

New Policies Scenario (NPS) Incorporates existing energy policies as well as an assessment of the results likely to stem from the implementation of announced policy intentions.

The crisis of conflicting thirsts                                                                         

The United Nations World Water Development Report and the IWMI predict severe water shortages in the Southeast Asian region by 2030. Part of this is because of climate change [Core: THE WRATH OF NATURE] but a larger part is due to catastrophically poor water resource management. The damage is already showing. Major waterways such as the Indus, Brahmaputra, and Ganges, which pay no attention to the borders of humans and politics, have historically been the heart of civilization and development in the region – and are now polluted toxic streams. In India, cities like Chennai desperately attempt to re-use wastewater, while in the villages youths auction themselves to bring water to their villages. In Karachi, Pakistan, women and children “walk for miles in search of water”. In Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, citizens struggle to find water to fuel their daily lives, even whilst living in the shadow of the Himalayas.

Tensions are exacerbated by India-Pakistan conflict [Core: THE DOGS OF WAR], where Indian politicians seem to be willing to weaponize water supplies to prove a point – and as of late stands accused of using water as an instrument of war. Meanwhile, China’s Ministry of Water Resources, as far back as 2005, coined the narrative offight for every drop of water or die.” Twelve northern Chinese provinces suffer from water scarcity. Two are desert. China has in place an ambitious North-to-South water transfer project that ferries water over 1,400 kilometers – the world’s largest water diversion project. Whether it solves the issue remains to be seen. China and India are not alone; Singapore’s water supply is under threat from Malaysia.

Unless this situation is addressed – and there seem to be very few solutions for many of these problems – large portions of Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal, and China will be home to legions starved of the most basic needs for human life. This is as much an infrastructure problem as an issue of climate change [Core: THE WRATH OF NATURE].

Rethinking food distribution and security 

Food production estimates keep fluctuating; in 2012, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations was convinced food production would surpass population increase; by 2018 they were course-correcting to point out a rise in world hunger and loss of food security – a complex function  of increasing populations, reduced agriculture output due to climate change and disasters [Core: THE WRATH OF NATURE], economic inequality and distribution issues. Food security in the APAC region remains a challenge of extraordinary size and scope [Satellite: FOOD SECURITY IN THE APAC: MALFUNCTIONING CORNUCOPIAS]. The droughts are increasing in frequency and severity and the area of arable land has shrunk.

The World Economic Forum, looking at the problem from a 30,000-foot view, sees four futures . One of them is titled, ominously, Survival of the Richest. Another predicts rapid growth, but at a high environmental cost. A third predicts that a more open, connected world might allow some rebalancing, at what they believe will be a cost to some farmers who are shut out of the global economy. This may very well be most farmers in our region, and given the politics involved may be too complex to ever pull off in time. A fourth looks at a shift away from global supply chains and towards local, which is where regional policy and political advocacy, spurred by nationalism, has been heading: towards self-sufficiency.  Despite the region’s economic growth [Core: THE NEXT BIG ECONOMY], combined with dwindling water resources, the APAC region as a whole may stand to miss its goals of hunger alleviation and may instead tilt head-first into a regional food security crisis.

Regional Responses

However, there is hope: necessity being the mother of invention, a few countries seem to be turning into ideal testbeds for innovative solutions. The local outlier, Singapore, is said to be at the forefront of water reclamation technology: and both China and Australia are making quiet but steady strides in the arena of desalination tech, with decades-old-plans set to pay off on a 2030 timeline. Very recently, the world’s first large-scale study on the environmental impacts of desalination plants was released, and its six-year examination of the Sydney Desalination Plant revealed both less ecological impact than initially assumed and a design that could double its capacity if required.

And of course, there is this: China’s massive South to North Water Diversion Project, which aims to send some 44.8 billion cubic meters of freshwater annually from the Yangtze River in southern China to the more arid and industrialized north through three canal systems – across a distance of over 1,400 km.

Figure 4: The middle route of the South-North water transfer project in China (Source: China Dialogue, image from CISPDR: http://www.cispdr.com/domestic/11533.jhtml)

The good news is that the APAC region is not alone in dealing with water issues [Satellite: WATER SCARCITY: A THREAT GREATER THAN TERRORISM]. The world’s most water-stressed countries are largely projected to be the Middle East – specifically, Bahrain, Kuwait, Palestine, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Oman, and Lebanon. Some of these countries have significant funds to throw behind technology to solve these issues.

As for energy, much is being said at the highest levels about the need to shift to different forms of energy, but APAC, with its burgeoning needs, may simply not have the privilege to indulge in such debates. Some regions in South Asia still lack basic access to electricity; despite the Indian PM announcing the electrification of every village in 2018, World Bank figures show that about 200 million people in India still lack access to electricity The energy crisis of Pakistan is also well known; a recent World Bank report pointed out that about 50 million Pakistanis live without electricity and Pakistan loses around 2.6% of its annual GDP due to constant power outages. Much attention is being devoted to solving these problems of last-mile access; for example, the concept of mini-and-microgrids – with a strong emphasis on decentralized power supply – is gaining traction and serious funding, both from within and from outside India. Coupled with increased attention to renewable energy, particularly in India, this shows an increased awareness at the policy level.

There is at least one proven path to solving the energy issue using existing grid and control structures: nuclear. Nuclear power, as the Asia-Pacific Research Center (APERC) points out, is one of the largest sources of low-carbon electricity in the world – and, with over 450 reactors operating around the world, nuclear has proven itself to be stable technology that can run entire grids. Nuclear power has, however, a habit of experiencing drawbacks after failures, especially because nuclear failure takes decades to recover from. In this case, the incident is the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi disaster, which arrived just as most Asian nations were considering their first nuclear project.  While China remains committed to building the world’s largest nuclear power industry [Satellite: CROUCHING TIGER, NUCLEAR DRAGON], other nations are pulling back. Geopolitics also plays a large role: notably, Bill Gates’ work with TerraPower, an experimental nuclear plant project in China which works off depleted uranium, has recently been stalled by US policy changes. IAEA’s projections also show a reduction from previous optimism around the field.

Weak Signals

  1. Regulatory issues and alternate nuclear power: One of the most cautious voices among the experts we consulted is Samuel Peralta, a physicist on the board of the Organization of Canadian Nuclear Industries (OCNI).  He points out that much of the cheap silicon panel manufacturing plants are in countries with little regulatory oversight, particularly where sewer policy is lax; the process of manufacture requires and generates significant amounts of poisonous waste that few are willing to discuss. However, there is a new narrative developing: thorium [Satellite: CROUCHING TIGER, NUCLEAR DRAGON]. In the 1960s, the United States tested two nuclear fuels: Uranium and Thorium, an element three times more abundant than Uranium. Despite both reactor technologies working, the political apparatus discontinued Thorium research – apparently because it was easier to weaponize Uranium reactors. Thorium is cheaper, safer – and China’s nuclear R&D program is investing heavily in it. Despite the global spotlight on solar and wind energy, this may be the dark horse that shapes the energy future of the entire APAC region: while China is leading reactor development, India is the primary source of thorium  – by estimates, it holds a full third of the world’s supply of the stuff, and has plans to have reactors running before 2030 to achieve its goals of energy independence. Given how its rivers transport massive amounts of thorium into the Bay of Bengal, we see potential for all the BIMSTEC countries to get in on the thorium game. This has major implications for both the economics of these countries [Core: THE NEXT BIG ECONOMY] and regional geopolitics [Core: THE DOGS OF WAR].

  2. Atmospheric Water Generator (AWG) companies like Generation Water and Watergen have been pointed out as resilient measures to counter poor water infrastructure in areas of high humidity. This technology has existed in military applications for several years, and has been demonstrated in India as locally-built solutions capable of delivering up to 1,000 litres a day. DIY designs also exist, as evidenced by this runner-up in the 2017 James Dyson Awards. However, AWGs are suitable for regions with some humidity in the air; low-humidity areas will require more drastic measures.

  3. An increased push for hardier crops and alternate food solutions. A prominent example is Green Super Rice, funded by the Chinese government and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. GSR is now making slow headway in India and the Philippines; it’s more efficient and requires less water to work with. Chemically manufactured food substitutes have long been a staple of science fiction. In response to shrinking agricultural space, they may be a revolutionary way out. On the one hand, a few specialized companies are experimenting with artificially grown meat, while others research superfood farming methods for replacing existing foodstuffs and chemically manufactured meal substitutes. Of particular note is spirulina, a type of algae, which some believe may be the next superfood: projections put the spirulina market reaching $651 million by 2025. And, of course, Soylent, which many dismiss as a Silicon Valley craze but could, if energy issues are solved, be a way of creating and providing large volumes of rather homogenous nutrient-rich meals. 3D printing to ensure food security has been proposed as a solution but has yet to be demonstrated in sufficient capacity. It’s important to note that the companies making waves in this under-the-radar field are almost all private – and American. The first issue is that while researchers at these companies are perfecting their methods, few rigorous studies exist on the viability and environmental impact on the work of the likes of Soylent, Finless Foods, Impossible Foods and Better Meat Company. The second is that the technology behind these products is closed-source and proprietary (and in the case of Impossible Foods, patented): unless the APAC region invests in similar work from the ground up, it may very well head into a scenario foreshadowed by science fiction writer Paolo Baccigalupi, where foreign corporations own the IP for most of the food supply of agricultural nations.

  4. Disease may kill more, faster. Specifically, antimicrobial-resistant (AMR) bacteria. A new plague of diseases which are resistant even to backup antibiotics (70% higher resistance by 2030 from what they were in 2005) will be the next big health challenge: the OECD predicts that some 2.4 million people in North America, Europe, and Australia could die by 2050;  the United States alone would the health-care costs would reach $65 billion – more than HIV. Studies on the effects on the APAC region appear to be relatively sparse. Bill and Melinda Gates also note the existence of an almost unknown class of “tropical diseases” that affect over 1 billion people, with pharmaceutical corporations spending relatively little R&D on them due to low expected profits. We expect climate change [Core: THE WRATH OF NATURE] and rapid urbanization [Core: THE MEGA-SPRAWL APPROACHES] to increase the threat, severity, and frequency of outbreaks of such disease, possibly leading to pandemics.

  5. Improvements in genetic research can bring about the long-discussed promise of pharmacogenomics and gene-editing, leading to improved human health from the get-go and further pushing the population issue. Whether this will be affordable or solely in the province of the rich by 2030 is up for debate. There do exist technologies like, CRISPR Cas-9, a technology that makes gene edits so cheap that kits can be acquired for $150 on Ebay; theoretically, using advances made by the Human Genome Project, this can turn the 2030s in to an era where parents can have their children’s genetics tailored to their liking. The ethics and science of this are still in the nascent stages, but work the work has already begun: a Chinese scientist recently claimed to have modified two babies to be genetically immune to HIV. The ethics uproar and subsequent investigations mark a strong ethical resistance to such work. However, we expect black-market laboratories to continue tinkering. An apt time to think of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: My dreams were therefore undisturbed by reality; I entered with the greatest diligence into the search of the philosopher’s stone and the elixir of life… Life and death appeared to me ideal bounds, which I should first break through, and pour a torrent of light into our dark world.

  6. A handful of sources, exploring population projections from different angles, highlight a curious skew: as populations in the region increase, they seem to be trending towards more males than females, especially in China and India [Satellite: WHERE HAVE ALL THE WOMEN GONE?]. The United States National Intelligence Council, given their mandate, sees this as a threat to regional stability, thinking that this might lead to larger numbers of warm bodies that might engage in civil unrest. The UNDP and the EIU see this as potentially leading to more male dominance in cultures and a roll-back on progress along equality SDGs. There’s already evidence that the latter is happening. A security researcher by the name of Victor Gevers recently stumbled across a database of 1.8 million Chinese women, containing their names, ages, education status, politics – and an ominous “BreedReady” marker for women between 19 and 39.

This report has been written by Yudhanjaya Wijeratne, Merl Chandana, Sriganesh Lokanathan and Shazna Zuhyle of LIRNEasia with commissioning by the UNDP Regional Innovation Centre (RIC) as an exploratory and intellectual analysis; the views and opinions published in this work are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect or represent the official position or policy of the RIC, United Nations Development Programme or any United Nations agency or UN Member States.

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