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Coastals of World
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Environments Protection

Southeast Asia , A Sea of Islands

Southeast Asia's seas are littered with islands of all shapes and sizes. From the air, the region looks like a garden of skerries. Indonesia's 5,000-kilometer-long archipelago contains over 14,000 islands; the Philippines has 7,100. And there are hundreds in the Andaman and South China seas. Disregarding Canada and Greenland, Indonesia and the Philippines boast the longest coastlines in the world. Indonesia's exceeds 54,000 kilometers. If stretched out in a straight line, it would encircle the earth twice.

The interplay of land and water through the ages has shaped the lives of Southeast Asians as surely as it has shaped the humid, watery lands they inhabit. Indonesia and the Philippines - the two biggest island archipelagos in the world - are defined by water. Malaysia is a thin peninsula caressed by two bodies of water. Vietnam and Cambodia curve around the bottom of Southeast Asia like a fetus, nurtured by the sea. Singapore is an island city-state, while Brunei is a tiny kingdom on a larger island, and Myanmar (formerly Burma) stretches out along Southeast Asia's western flank. Only Thailand has some land mass to spare in its northern interior, hard against the golden triangle.

Southeast Asia's coastal states form one biogeographical unit, separating Asia from Australia and the Pacific from the Indian Ocean. This vast region covers nearly 9 million square kilometers, or 2.5 percent of the world's ocean surface.

The prime location of these island and peninsular states has forged the region into one of the world's major trading crossroads. Seasonal trade winds allowed the "spice islands" to be visited by Arabs from the west, Chinese traders from the east, and Europeans from both directions. While trying to find a shortcut to the East Indies-meaning the Indonesian and Philippine archipelagos-Christopher Columbus accidentally stumbled upon North America. Not knowing where he was, Columbus called the islands of the Caribbean the "Indies" and their inhabitants "Indians."

In large measure because of its location, Southeast Asia has been frequently colonized. The Philippines were Spanish, then American, while Indonesia remained Dutch until 1949, when it gained independence after a short war. Malaysia, Singapore, and Burma were all British. Vietnam and Cambodia belonged to French Indochina. Only Thailand was never under foreign domination.

Today, the region finds itself on a major oil route. All Middle East crude destined for Japan, China, Hong Kong, and South Korea must pass through either the narrow Strait of Malacca or the Lombok Channel. One of the reasons the United States maintains a strong military presence in the region is to protect those vital shipping lanes. Not surprisingly, the economies of those states are in high gear. Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Vietnam, Brunei, and recently the Philippines are experiencing rapid economic growth. Only Myanmar and Cambodia are lagging behind.

Malaysia has been galloping along for eight years with annual economic growth rates of 8 percent or more. Singapore and Thailand chalked up similarly impressive records: In 1995 both economies grew by close to 9 percent. Indonesia, once extremely poor, is now well on the road to economic recovery, with a growth rate in 1995 of 7.5 percent. In 1970, close to 60 percent of all Indonesians lived in poverty; by 1990, that figure had been whittled to just 15 percent. Even the Philippines' sluggish economy grew by 5.3 percent in 1995 and over 6 percent in 1996.

However, without coastal management plans in place and working, the brunt of unplanned development and economic expansion is being borne by the coasts. Without sustainable management of resources, coastal economies are unlikely to be sustainable, either. Coral reefs are being pillaged for profit, reducing tourism dollars. Mangroves are being destroyed to make room for fish ponds and agriculture, reducing offshore shrimp and fish catches. Upland forests have been decimated in the name of development, sending tons of eroded sediment into rivers and coastal waters, ruining habitats and killing off marine life. In many places the link has not been made between what happens on land and what happens in the sea. Roughly half of Southeast Asia's coasts are at severe risk from development pressures (see figure 1.3 on pate 10).


In 1997, Southeast Asia's collective population-that of Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam-amounted to 496 million people. Of that 85 percent, or 400 million, live along a coast or within 200 kilometers of one. Southeast Asia has the highest percentage of coastal dwellers in the world (see figure 12.1 and table 12. 1).

There are a number of reasons for the region's spectacular economic advances, but two have to do with demographics: first, the creation of highly successful population and reproductive health programs in all countries except Cambodia; second, increased emphasis on educating girls and women.

Population growth and total fertility rates (TFRs) have been falling steadily for over two decades. By the end of 1970, Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Myanmar had all launched population and family planning programs (Malaysia's program dates from the 1950s). As of the beginning of 1997, annual population growth rates for Thailand, Indonesia, Myanmar, Vietnam, and Singapore were all below 2 percent a year. The Philippines' rate was 2.3 percent in 1997 and Malaysia's 2.2.

In both Thailand and Indonesia the average number of children women have over the course of their reproductive lives has fallen dramatically: from six children to four ...

(Coastal Waters of the World - Trends, Threats and Strategies, Don Hinrichsen, Island Press, Washington D.C., 1998.)