FeaturedNationalVOLUME 19 ISSUE # 18

Pakistan: the challenge of rising hunger

According to the Global Hunger Index 2023, hunger in developing countries remains a serious problem. Hunger kills more people each year than AIDS, malaria and terrorism combined. Currently, one out of nine people in the world is undernourished, with 98% of them residing in the global South. Despite advancements over the years, the fight against hunger has stalled worldwide in recent years

According to experts, hunger causes various health issues and reduces the life expectancy of the affected population. Malnutrition weakens the immune system, making it harder for the body to fight off diseases. It is said that lack of nutrients at a young age can lead to behavioural problems like hyperactivity, anxiety and aggression.

The Global Hunger Index 2023 categorises the level of hunger in Pakistan as “serious”, as the country ranks 102nd with a score of 26.6, signifying concerningly high hunger levels. Food insecurity is a rising challenge for Pakistan. A recent report from the FAO titled State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World, 2023, indicates that 42.3pc of the population in Pakistan faced moderate to severe food insecurity during 2020-2022. This was due to Covid and the devastating floods in 2022, underlining the vulnerability of a large portion of the population to unforeseen disasters.

The above report estimated the cost of maintaining a healthy diet in Pakistan at $3.89 per person per day, which means that as much as 82.8pc of the population is unable to afford such a diet. Subsequently, the worsening rupee-dollar parity and the global jump in commodity prices has made it more difficult for most Pakistanis to afford a healthy and balanced diet.

A study conducted by the World Food Programme and the government of Pakistan estimated that the economic consequences of undernutrition amounted to around $7.6 billion annually in terms of lost future workforce due to child mortality, reduced future adult productivity and the costs associated with health care service.

Malnutrition in Pakistan poses an existential threat, jeopardizing the future of the coming generations. It is a formidable challenge, especially for women and children and other underprivileged groups. Inadequate intake of essential micronutrients affects more than 80% of children who are deprived of crucial nutrients such as calcium, vitamins and zinc. This deficiency negatively impacts their cognitive growth and reduces the potential for a productive life. According to a research report, malnutrition accounts for an estimated annual loss of approximately $3 billion, equivalent to around 1.33% of its GDP. At the same time, direct medical costs amount to around $19 million annually.

Pakistan ranks as the country with the second-highest prevalence of stunting across South Asia, with over 40% of children under five suffering from stunted growth, compared to the South Asian average of 31%. This condition, closely linked to brain development, may lead to long-term physical impacts, depriving children of the ability to lead fulfilling lives. The rate of reduction in stunting presents a grim picture, at 0.5 annually, far below the global target of 3.9%. According to World Bank estimates, each batch of stunted newborns puts a new burden on the already struggling economy.

Another issue is child wasting which increases a child’s risk of death by 10%. It is estimated that one in five children in Pakistan is wasted. Pakistan also suffers from a high incidence of underweight births estimated at 22.7% which is much higher than the regional average. Pakistan also has a child mortality rate of 65 per 1000, as compared to the global average of 37 per 1000 deaths. Childhood stunting and iodine deficiency combined costs Pakistan an estimated $3.7 billion in lost productivity per year.

Malnutrition results from a combination of factors, including poverty, lack of education, gender disparities, insufficient dietary diversity and limited access to healthcare. Poverty rates are higher in rural areas, with 30% of children in these regions suffering from malnutrition. In 2023, the poverty level rose from 34.4% to 39.4%, indicating that 12.5 million people have fallen below the poverty line and are vulnerable to undernourishment. Gender inequality further exacerbates the situation,

To overcome the challenge of hunger and food insecurity, a multi-sectoral approach involving education, health and social security programs is needed. Food security is a broad based concept which requires a comprehensive approach covering not just the quantity of food but also issues like distribution inefficiencies and socio-economic disparities. It remains to be seen what steps the new government takes to tackle the burning food insecurity issue affecting the well-being of the present and future generations.