FeaturedNationalVOLUME 17 ISSUE # 6

Growing hunger fears

Pakistan’s ranking has improved in the Global Hunger Index 2021, but it still faces serious challenges to feed its rising population and tackle malnutrition, especially among children. It is encouraging that the country has performed better than India in the pandemic year, but it still lags far behind almost all other countries of the region.

According to the Global Hunger Index, Pakistan ranks 92nd out of the 116 countries with a score of 24.7, indicating serious levels of hunger. Except India, Pakistan’s ranking is lower than all other countries of South Asia and neighbouring countries. India ranks 101st, with a score of 27.5, while Bangladesh stands at 76th position with a score of 19.1, which means moderate hunger. Nepal stands at 76th position, with a score of 19.1 and moderate level of hunger. Sri Lanka stands at 65th position, with a score of 16 and moderate level of hunger. Afghanistan ranks 103rd with a score of 28.3, showing a serious level of hunger. Iran sits at 35th place with a score of 7.7, showing a low level of hunger. As expected, China is one of 18 countries with a GHI score of less than 5.

India lags behind Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal. The report says the level of hunger in India  is alarming. The share of wasting among children in India rose from 17.1pc between 1998 and 2002 to 17.3pc between 2016 and 2020. “People have been severely hit by COVID-19 and by pandemic-related restrictions in India, the country with the highest child wasting rate worldwide,” the report said. South Asian and African countries are the areas where hunger levels are the highest. Hunger in both regions is considered serious. South Africa and South Asia have the highest hunger levels with GHI scores of 27.1 and 26.1, respectively. South Asia’s high regional hunger level is driven largely by child undernutrition, particularly as measured by child wasting. At 14.7pc, South Asia’s child wasting rate as of 2020 is the highest of any world region. South Asia’s child stunting rate, at 31.8pc, is nearly as high as that of South Africa. More than half of the children in the world who experience wasting and more than one-third of the children who experience stunting live in South Asia.

According to the Pakistan Social and Living Standards Measurement, Balochistan faced the highest level of moderate or severe food insecurity at 29.84pc, followed by Sindh 18.45pc, Punjab 15.16pc and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa 12.75pc. Punjab, the food basket of the country, lags behind Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The official survey was conducted in 2019-20, when the country had not been locked down to prevent the spread of the pandemic. The survey not only reflects the impacts of job losses, income reduction and IMF-dictated economic policies on the lives of the poor, but also the effects of climate change on agriculture and different food security levels in different regions. According to the survey, the highest level of moderate or severe food insecurity was recorded at 48.8pc in Barkhan and the lowest at 4.59pc in Gwadar, Balochistan. In Sindh, the highest level was recorded at 34.04pc in Kashmore and the lowest at 7.66pc in Khairpur. In Punjab, the highest level of moderate or severe food insecurity was noted at 28.81pc in Kasur and the lowest at 4.18pc in Okara. In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the highest level stood at 32.43pc in Tank and the lowest at 3.94pc in Shangla.

Undoubtedly, rising prices of food are the biggest challenge for the people and the government. Pakistan had to import wheat and sugar last year to check their prices. However, global food prices are also rising. They extended their rally to the highest in almost a decade, according to the United Nations, heightening concerns over bulging grocery bills. A United Nations gauge of world food costs climbed for a 12th straight month in May 2021, its longest stretch in a decade. The surge has stirred the memories of 2008 and 2011, when price spikes led to food riots in more than 30 nations. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, the prolonged gains across the staple commodities are trickling through to store shelves, with countries from Kenya to Mexico reporting higher food costs. The pain could be particularly pronounced in some of the poorest import-dependent nations, which have limited purchasing power and social safety nets as they grapple with the pandemic, it said.

It is clear that Pakistan has to upgrade its agriculture sector to meet the growing needs of its people. The Pakistan Social and Living Standards Measurement survey shows that intermittent periods of drought and heavy rains over several years have not only pushed up poverty levels in various regions of the country but also have increased the number of people facing food insecurity. Food insecurity is not only about food shortages in the market but also signifies lack of sufficient money to buy food.

We have substantial evidence that food insecurity hits women and children harder than their adult male relatives. People living in poorer districts and areas also face greater food insecurity for longer periods than others. Pakistan will not only have to improve its economic growth and agricultural performance to provide jobs to its people and enable them to buy nutritious food but also bridge the widening regional economic and development gap, which has increased inequalities in the access to basic needs of life. Pakistan should also benefit from China to improve its agriculture.