FeaturedNationalVOLUME 14 ISSUE # 24

Rising food insecurity in Pakistan

Almost half of Balochistan’s households face mild to severe food insecurity, according to a new report released by the State Bank of Pakistan (SBP). Alarmingly, of the 36.9pc food insecure households in the country, 18.3pc face severe food insecurity. The shocking report comes at a time when the United Nations has warned that hunger is rising in the world. The situation demands urgent action from the government.


According to the SBP, almost a quarter of Pakistan’s population lives below the poverty line, set at Rs3,030.3 per adult equivalent per month. It means that around 50 million people in the country are unable to meet their basic needs. Most of these people live in rural areas where the poverty rate is 30.7pc. In its third quarterly report on the state of the economy, the central bank noted provincial disparities in terms of food security in Pakistan. In Balochistan, at least 30pc households experience hunger on a chronic basis. On the other hand, Gilgit-Baltistan has the most food secure households, nearly 80pc in the region, followed by Khyber Paktunkhwa (70pc). Only 63.1pc of the country’s households are “food secure” despite the fact that Pakistan is self-sufficient in major staples. According to the Ministry of Health and UNCEF’s National Nutritional Survey, 2018, Pakistan is ranked at 8th position in producing wheat, 10th in rice, 5th in sugarcane, and 4th in milk production. Pakistan is among seven countries that cumulatively account for two-thirds of the world’s undernourished population


A high population growth and unfavourable water and climatic conditions in the country mean that concerns about food security may increase manifold over the next two to three decades. “In case of Pakistan, estimates suggest that malnutrition and its outcomes cost the economy 3pc of GDP ($7.6 billion) every year,” says the SBP report. With per capita income of $1,497, Pakistan is still struggling with issues such as undernourishment, micronutrient (iron, calcium, vitamin-A, etc) deficiencies, and a deficit of safe drinkable water. “Per capita consumption of food products that possess high-nutritional value, like beef, chicken, fish, milk, vegetables and fruits, is almost 6-10 times lower than that of developed countries,” it noted.


More worryingly, almost half of the children under five years are stunted (low height-for-age) and one in ten has been suffering from low-weight-for height. Incorporating the factors, Pakistan was ranked 106th among 119 countries surveyed for the Global Hunger Index, and has been characterised as facing a “serious” level of hunger. In fact, Pakistan is among those seven countries that cumulatively account for two-thirds of the world’s undernourished population along with Bangladesh, China, Congo, Ethiopia, India and Indonesia. According to the report, under-5 malnutrition costs heavily. About $2.24b is estimated as the loss of future labour force resulting from under-5 mortality; Over $1b is the estimated healthcare expense, which the families incur to address diarrhea and respiratory infection among children; $3.7b is the estimated cost of low labour productivity emanating from stunting, anemia or iodine deficiencies in childhood; and $657m is the estimated cost of prevalence of chronic weakness and fatigue among 10m working adults with anemia experience.


Only 0.3pc of the population in Balochistan and 1.8pc in the Punjab benefit from social protection programmes of some kind. The ratio, however, is relatively higher for the people in Sindh (12.7pc), Gilgit-Baltistan (10.3pc) and KP (5.1pc). “Although the country relies heavily on imports for certain food items such as edible oil, tea and pulses, it is able to provide for major staples on its own. If the population increases at the existing pace over the next couple of decades, it will become extremely challenging for Pakistan to sustain even the food self-sufficiency,” the report warned.


Currently, water productivity of most crops in Pakistan is lower than the desirable range. For instance, sugarcane and wheat use around four times the global average of irrigation water, while rice consumes more than six times the world’s average. Going forward, growing water shortages are expected to drag down yield of different crops on considerable scale. The latest estimates of “Aqueduct Projected Water Stress Country Rankings” suggest that Pakistan will fall to the rank of 18th most water-stressed country in 2020, compared to the current ranking of 31.


Meanwhile, the United Nations has warned that the number of people going hungry in the world has risen for the third year running after years of improvement. In its latest report, the UN blamed conflict, climate shocks and economic slowdowns for rising hunger in the world. More than 2 billion people lack access to healthy food, putting them at risk of health problems – and many of them live in North America or Europe, the UN said, urging governments to “look beyond hunger.” More than a quarter of the world’s population now struggles to eat “safe, nutritious and sufficient food”, according to the UN’s State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2019 report. It includes about 8pc of people in Europe and North America, according to the annual study, which for the first time includes people affected by “moderate food insecurity” as well as outright hunger. The findings show governments need to pay more attention to different aspects of food availability instead of just focusing on producing more. The report said there were 822 million obese people in 2016, the most recent year for which figures were available, when 796.5 million people were undernourished.


The SBP report is alarming when it notes that only 63pc of Pakistan’s households are food secure, which is despite the fact that Pakistan is self-sufficient in major stable foods. The fact that one-third of all households in the country are not food secure in a country which produces almost all of its food means that the problem lie in the mechanism for distribution as well as the low rate of compensating rural labour.


The bottom 60pc of households in the country spend a substantial part of their incomes (45pc on average) on food, which compromises their nutritional security. Even if prices are relatively low and stable, the poorest of the poor still lack the purchasing power to buy food. Thus, like other developing countries, Pakistan also has to resort to in-kind and cash transfers to stabilise and increase the real incomes of the poor. It will also have to expedite its efforts for population growth.