A "snapshot" of populations in Asia

Posted: 12 July 2002

Author: Sidney Westley

The demographic transition has been more rapid and more dramatic in Asia than in any other part of the world. Fueled by economic growth and the diffusion of new ideas and health and family planning technologies, both mortality and fertility have declined in every country of the region.

Between 1950 and 2000, life expectancy in East Asia rose from 43 to 72 years, and fertility dropped from more than five to less than two children per woman.

The countries of Southeast and South and Central Asia have begun the transition to low mortality and fertility, but most are not as far advanced. Yet even in the less developed countries of the region, death and birth rates have fallen, and population growth rates and structures are changing.

In East Asia, Japan now has the highest life expectancy in the world, at 81 years, and Hong Kong, Macao, and Singapore are not far behind United Nations 2001). At the other extreme, life expectancies are particularly low (in the 50s) in Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, and Nepal. Afghanistan, at 43 years, has one of the lowest life expectancies in the world. Life expectancy is 71 in China and 64 in India, the largest two countries in the region.

The rate of fertility decline in Asia has varied widely, however, so that fertility levels in Asia today are extremely diverse-ranging from a low of 1.3 children per woman in Japan to a high of 6.8 in Afghanistan.

Fertility is at replacement level (usually defined as 2.1 children per woman) or lower in all the countries of East Asia except Mongolia. In Southeast Asia, fertility ranges from 1.5 children per woman in Singapore to 4.8 in Laos (Lao People's Democratic Republic) and Cambodia. In South and Central Asia, fertility ranges from 2.0 children per woman in Kazakhstan to 6.8 in Afghanistan. In Asia's largest countries, fertility averages 1.8 children per woman in China and 3.0 in India.

Sharp reductions in mortality combined with later and slower reductions in fertility have resulted in high rates of transitional population growth. Between 1950 and 2000, Asia's population grew by 258 per cent - from 1.3 to 3.5 billion. Over the 50-year period, the region's share of world population increased from 54 to 58 percent.

According to the United Nations medium-variant projections, life expectancy will rise from 66 to 77 years between 2000 and 2050 and fertility will decline from 2.7 to 2.1 children per woman. This will produce continued population growth, but at a much slower pace. The projected increase is from 3.5 to 5.0 billion, or 44 per cent.

Six countries are projected to contribute 81 percent of Asia's population growth from 2000 to 2050. These are India, Pakistan, China, Bangladesh, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Two countries and two territories in East Asia - Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, and Macao - will experience population decline.

Ms. Sidney Westley is a writer, editor and communications specialist at the East-West Center, Honolulu, Hawaii.This is a shortened version the article which first appeared in Asia-Pacific Population & Policy (No. 59, October 2001), published by the East-West Center. Click here to read the full version.