FeaturedHealth/Sci-TechVolume 12 Issue # 20

Pakistan’s growing malnutrition crises

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.