FeaturedNationalVolume 13 Issue # 18

Malnutrition crisis: From bad to worse

According to the Food Security and Nutrition Strategic Review for Pakistan in 2017, food insecurity is one of the greatest challenges facing the country. The overall prevalence of undernourishment is estimated to be about 18% of the entire population. Some 58% of households in Pakistan are food insecure out of which 9.8% are food insecure with hunger. Over the past few years, malnutrition has emerged as one of the world’s leading challenges with regard to food security. It should come as no surprise that the menace of malnutrition is especially prevalent in Pakistan, given the poor socioeconomic conditions.

Undernutrition, simply put, is a condition in which our bodies are deprived of all the necessary nutrients, which can only be addressed through a balanced diet. Our diets in Pakistan are barely what we can classify as “balanced diets”. This is an issue that arises directly as a result of food insecurity.

The high percentage of food insecurity poses a direct threat to the nation and has resulted in a number of detrimental health-related issues, women and children under the age of five being the major sufferers. The health risks associated with malnutrition are morbidity and infections which lead to mortality. The three major risks that we are facing as a nation are stunted growths in children, anaemia in women who are of reproductive age and obesity in adults.

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 claimed that many countries, including Pakistan, Bangladesh, the Democratic Republic of Con­go, Ethiopia and Nigeria, had only a minority of children who were growing healthily.

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. 1/3rd of Pakistani children are underweight and iron deficient, 15% are wasted and 14% women are either thin or wasted. The developmental, social and health impacts of this burden are serious and often long lasting.

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. Experts say 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 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.

With malnutrition so widely prevalent with a high economic cost, Pakistan ranks below its neighbours like China, India and Bangladesh, according to international donor services. This is also supported by a report prepared by the United Nations Children’s Fund and the World Health Organisation, which highlights how the prevalence of stunting — a reported consequence of malnutrition — has dropped considerably in India, China and Bangladesh, except Pakistan where the issue has been exacerbated.

Successive governments in Pakistan have 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. It is time the authorities concerned prioritized the issue of malnutrition and food insecurity and allocated sufficient budget to tackle it on a long term basis.

Pakistan was not able to meet its millennium development goals by 2015 and still hasn’t because a major chunk of the GDP, which is around 3%, gets dedicated to the malnutrition crisis. Economist Yunus Kamran advocates that better nutrition enhances economic growth, but also argues that Pakistan needs strong economic theories and models to formalise this relationship. The disparity in the nutritional status between the urban and rural divide is much less and varies widely across the country. 40 to 50% of the periodic seasonal food insecurity reported is from regions like Balochistan, Sindh, south Punjab, parts of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Fata. The food insecurity seen in these regions is an inherent cause of poor and unhygienic living conditions, with little access to safe drinking water and no access to adequate sanitation facilities. This when compounded with poor access to healthcare facilities makes the situation untenable.