Pakistan's growing malnutrition crises
Nasim Ahmed


According to a new UN report, the world is facing a serious nutrition
deficit crisis. An estimated 800 million people around the world go to bed hungry every night, and more than two billion are deficient in crucial vitamins and minerals. In 2015, 156 million children under the age of five years were stunted (too short for their age which is a sign of chronic malnutrition) and 50 million were wasted (much too thin for their height — a sign of acute malnutrition).
Nutritional stunting means short height for an age or a reduced growth
rate in human development. Stunting basically results from malnutrition.
Stunted children cannot be expected to grow up as productive adults compared
with those who are fed adequate food in the first five years of life.
Malnutrition is a widespread problem in Pakistan and affects a large section
of the population. At a recent conference organized by the Planning
Commission, Country Director World Food Programme said that two out
of every five (44 per cent) children under the age of five are stunted, 32
per cent are underweight and 15 per cent children are suffering from acute
malnutrition in Pakistan.
Childhood stunting and wasting remains a serious problem as more than 160 million children worldwide under five are too short for their age
or stunted, while more than 50 million do not weigh enough for their height
or are wasted. The report underscores the need for implementing critical
nutrition actions urgently in countries with the greatest need, and especially
in Pakistan where we face the double burden of persisting maternal and
childhood under-nutrition and growing obesity.
Realising the gravity of the crisis, governments, development agencies,
implementing partners and research institutions have joined hands to address
the underlying causes of malnutrition. They are mobilising mass
media to generate awareness in the community and developing coherent
nutrition-related policies and plans. Within the framework of the 2030
Agenda for Sustainable Development, world leaders at the United Nations
General Assembly recently proclaimed the UN Decade of Action on Nutrition
from 2016 to 2025, which marks a new vision and direction in global
action to address nutrition challenges. The Decade represents a unique,
collective opportunity for achieving better nutrition for all people through
access to affordable, sustainable and healthy diets.
Needless to say, Pakistan faces a severe nutrition crisis. The Global
Nutrition Report 2015 said that only a small minority of children are growing
healthily in Pakistan, which is estimated to have more than half the children
under the age of five as stunted or wasted. The report claims that many
countries, including Pakistan, Bangladesh, the Democratic Republic of
Con¬go, Ethiopia and Nigeria, had only a minority of children who were
growing healthily. It also presents a dismal picture of the global nutrition
status and says that no country is on track to achieve the global nutrition
targets set by the World Health Assembly.
Pakistan's 2011 National Nutrition Survey (NNS) showed high levels of
stunting (43.7%) and wasting (10.5%) in children under five years of age.
Half of women of reproductive age are anaemic and the population suffers
from a significant lack of vitamins and minerals. The developmental, social
and health impacts of this burden are serious and often long lasting. During
his recent visit to Pakistan, the World Bank president said that Pakistan
should address the high prevalence of stunting among its children on a
priority basis. According to WB data, Pakistan has one of the highest
prevalence of stunting in the world: as many as 45% of its kids under the
age of five face stunted growth. He pointed out that if the problem of stunting
is not tackled immediately, almost half of the workforce may not be
able to participate in the digital economy in about 15 years.
According to the annual report of the National Economic Council, which
was some time back placed before the National Assembly, one out of three
Pakistanis "does not have regular and assured access to sufficient nutritious
food". The report suggested that the "poor performance of the agriculture
sector in recent years" is responsible for this situation, and that the
remedy lies in making agriculture growth more "pro-poor", that is by diversifying
the base of incomes and creating more linkages between the farm
and non-farm sectors.
A recent World Bank report has warned that malnutrition costs nations
up to 3.0 percent of the annual GDP and malnourished children lose 10
percent of their lifetime earning potential, while stressing that malnutrition
in Pakistan is the severest in the region. The statistics gathered from various
United Nations and donor sources indicate that Pakistan ranks below
China, India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka on prevalence of stunting, micronutrient
uptake, adolescent and adult nutrition status and various other
indicators directly related to nutrition.
According to United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF)/ World Health
Organization (WHO) data, prevalence of stunting below the age of five in
India was 62 percent in 1990, but it has now declined to 48 percent, in
China it has declined from 22 percent to 9.0 percent, while in Pakistan it
has increased from 43 percent in 1992 to 45 percent 2012. In Bangladesh,
prevalence of stunting below the age of five was 51 percent in 2004 and
has now declined to 41 percent. Sri Lanka has even a better record where stunting has declined from 28 percent in 1995 to 15 percent now.
Successive governments in Pakistan have miserably failed to address
the issue of malnutrition and stunting. Malnutrition increases Pakistan's
healthcare costs, reduces productivity and slows economic
growth. It perpetuates the cycle of disease and poverty in the country.
The malnutrition crisis is a long standing one but successive governments
have paid little heed to it. Experts say that Pakistan can add 2-3
per cent to its GDP by tackling the issue of malnutrition. The paradox is
that despite Pakistan being one of the major food producing countries
in the world, 50% of its population is food insecure. Pakistan is the 8th
largest food producing country, the 6th largest producer of apricot, 5th
largest producer of milk and grows about 25 million metric tonnes of
wheat. Yet, food insecurity is on the rise, and a growing majority of its
children are malnourished and underweight due to lack of access to adequate
food. It is time the authorities concerned prioritized the issue or
malnutrition and food insecurity and allocated sufficient budget to tackle
it on a long term basis.