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Asian countries share some difficult environmental problems. Among the most significant are land and soil degradation, lessening the land’s capacity to sustain life. Desertification is an extreme example of land degradation. Scientists estimate that 10 percent of all land has been transformed from productive use into desert, and another quarter is at risk. The desert regions of the Middle East have been spreading for hundreds of years. Prehistoric forests in the region were destroyed by human habitation. Overgrazing and destruction of surrounding vegetation have continued the desertification of the region.
Deforestation is another serious problem. Closed-canopy tropical rain forests are distributed from northeast India through Southeast Asia and north as far as southern China. From 1960 to 1990 Asia lost nearly one-third of its tropical forests. Both India and the Philippines have less than one-quarter of their original forest cover.
In recent years the rate of forest loss in places such as Cambodia, Laos, and Indonesia has accelerated. The increasing population of people who practice shifting cultivation—also known as slash-and-burn agriculture—has done some damage, but rapid commercial harvesting of the rain forest is now causing the greatest concern. Despite government measures to ban or reduce logging in areas of Southeast Asia, illegal logging continues throughout the region. In some areas it is often with the support of military or guerrilla forces who use the proceeds to support their activities.
The rapid industrialization of countries in East and Southeast Asia has created serious air pollution. Two of the main pollutants produced by the combustion of fossil fuels, which include petroleum and natural gas, are suspended particulate matter (SPM) and sulfur dioxide. These are harmful to the human respiratory tract and cause illnesses such as bronchitis.
Cities in China, especially Beijing, Shenyang, Shanghai, and Xian, have among the highest levels of SPM pollution in the world due to their heavy use of coal for residential and industrial energy. Indian cities, including Delhi, Kolkata, and Mumbai (formerly Bombay), also have high levels of SPM and sulfur dioxide from fossil fuel use. Tokyo and other Japanese manufacturing centers have a lesser problem with air pollution because government controls are greater.
Some scientists predict global warming will cause the polar ice caps to melt, raising mean sea levels 230 mm (9 in) by 2050 and 00.50 m (20 in) by 2100. Rising sea levels would have catastrophic consequences for coastal Asian countries. The worst hit would be Bangladesh, where more than 110 million people live in the low-lying Ganges Delta. Already vulnerable to cyclones and tidal waves that inundate the region, 13,000 sq km (5,000 sq mi) of Bangladesh’s land area would be lost with a 1 m (3 ft) rise in sea levels. The high population densities of these low-lying areas make resettlement to higher ground impractical.
Environmental consciousness in Asia is growing. Most Asian countries are increasingly implementing more environmental regulations. Economic development, however, remains a greater priority in most developing countries.