Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Hunger and malnutrition worsen in Asia

Suman Sahai


A recent survey conducted by the World Food Programme (WFP), the United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) and the Bangladesh Institute of Public Health Nutrition (IPHN), to assess the impact of rising food prices on the overall nutritional condition of the population revealed some alarming statistics. Two million children under

the age of five suffer from acute malnutrition. A quarter of these suffer from severe acute malnutrition. The survey also reported ‘wasting’ and ‘severe wasting’ - conditions which

require immediate medical attention. Wasting is caused by: ‘a recent and severe process that has led to substantial weight loss, usually associated with starvation and/or disease’.

The survey also found that 25 per cent of the total households were food insecure. Between 2005 and 2008, household income dropped by 12 per cent and expenditure on food rose by 10 per cent. As prices of everyday commodities, especially food and fuel, skyrocketed, an additional 7.5 million people joined the ranks of those who consume less than 2,100 calories, the minimum daily amount of food recommended by WFP, raising the total to 65 million – or 45 percent of the total population. The increasing financial pressure on the poor of the country has reduced the diversity and frequency of food intake drastically - the key reasons for malnutrition among children.

Almost half the children surveyed were diagnosed with stunted growth, 37.4 per cent of them were also underweight. The survey found malnutrition in Bangladesh to be the most

severe in south Asia, amounting to a ‘silent emergency’. Malnutrition is a direct cause of death among children, and a significant underlying cause of child mortality. It affects the development of the child, increases the risk of women dying during pregnancy/childbirth and contributes to neonatal mortality.

Malnutrition impacts the society at large, affecting cognitive performance, healthcare and social costs and productivity. Unless the current level of malnutrition is urgently addressed, Bangladesh is unlikely to achieve any Millennium Development Goals.


Malnutrition - combined with diarrhoea, pneumonia and tuberculosis - is the biggest cause of child mortality in Tharparkar district in Pakistan’s southern Sind province. Infant (children under twelve months) and child mortality (under 5 years) is much worse here than the national average, according to local officials. Infant mortality is 123 per 1,000 live births and the child mortality rate is 140 per 1,000, according to official records at the civil hospital. The figures in Tharparkar are worse than Pakistan’s overall infant mortality rate of 75 per 1,000 live births.

Malnutrition results in low immunity and resistance to infection. Twenty per cent of children at the district hospital have pneumonia, fifty percent have diarrhoea and TB while the rest have other malnutrition-related ailments. The average daily income of most patients at Mithi’s staterun hospital was less than Pakistani Rs150 (US$1.86) and there was little awareness about preventive health. The local doctors said that preventive health programmes were being run by the government and NGOs but people tended not to follow the whole course. So if one parent is infected, or anyone in the family is, the disease takes hold. This laid-back approach makes treatment more difficult.


Myanmar's northern state of Rakhine has had a history of abject poverty, but this year’s food crisis has made it worse. Of the state's nearly one million inhabitants, about 85 per cent are Rohingya, an ethnic, linguistic and religious minority deemed ‘stateless’ as per Myanmar laws. Consequently according to Human Rights Watch (HRW), they are subject to severe restrictions of movement, employment and religious freedom. Much of the food shortage can be attributed to a poor agricultural season in 2007 and 2008, rising food and agricultural inputs, and declining employment opportunities for the landless poor.

The price of rice was 75 per cent higher in June 2008 against 2007, prompting many Rohingya families to forgo one meal a day. Recent field reports of studies done by the WFP indicate a similar, if not worse, situation with respect to household food insecurity in the early months of this year, largely due to growing levels of debt, a reduced harvest in the main 2008-2009 agricultural season, coupled with declining opportunities for wage labour, Exacerbating the problem is the significant drop in village rice stores compared with levels typical for this time of year.

In addition, more Buddhist Rakhine families, as well as other ethnic households in the area, required assistance than before. Until recently food assistance was largely targeted at the Muslim population. According to human rights activists, restrictions imposed by authorities on the Rohingya make their plight particularly dire.

The government insists the Rohingya are Bengali and do not have the same rights as Myanmar citizens. The WFP cancelled its Foodfor- Education programme in northern Rakhine for the year 2008-2009. Although donations from the European Union and the UN are expected, they have yet to be received and the overall funding outlook for 2009 remains uncertain. WFP needs $16 million to support its food assistance activities in Myanmar, which include seven programmes in Rakhine.


There is an acute shortage of food aid being delivered to Afghanistan. Despite an emergency appeal made in July 2008 for US$404 million to help the most vulnerable among the 550,000 pregnant and lactating women and under-five children in Afghanistan, nutritious food aid - specially fortified food -is yet to reach those in need.

Roughly one fourth of lactating women are malnourished and about 19 percent of pregnant women are weak and food insecure, suffering from poor nutritional status (low on minerals and vitamins).

In addition to this, more than half of the children underfive are stunted, according to a survey by UN agencies and the government. Women and children are among the most vulnerable of the millions of Afghans who have been affected by insecurity, high food prices and drought.

Oxfam has called on international donors to boost humanitarian aid deliveries: “The health of over a million young children and half a million women is at serious risk due to malnutrition but a humanitarian rescue package is only 42 per cent funded, with key sectors such as health and education less than two per cent funded.”

WFP hopes that the nutritious food aid programme will begin soon. Logistical hurdles, the security situation and several other factors have often delayed aid delivery. So far little, if any, medical relief had been provided since the emergency appeal was launched in July 2008. Afghanistan is second only to Sierra Leone in terms of having the world’s worst maternal and infant mortality rates.


Agricultural experts in Nepal are concerned that people in already food-insecure Nepal will have to further tighten their belts in view of rising prices. According to local food traders the price of rice, increased by 24 per cent, cooking oil by 30 per cent and wheat flour by 18 per cent in 2008. High dependence on imports, an Indian export ban on key food commodities, and increasing transport costs were the main reasons for the rise in price. According to Nepal’s Rastriya Bank, food inflation in the country reached 17 per cent compared to only 10 per cent in India Natural disasters and civil unrest further worsened matters.

The Nepal WFP country representative expressed concern that the people living on the margins will suffer still further. Many people are already skipping meals and eating less nutritious food.

According to WFP, the rise in food prices has seriously affected people in western hill regions and worsened child malnutrition rates. According to the Demographic and Health Survey Nepal has one of south Asia’s worst malnutrition rates, with almost 50 per cent of children under five stunted and suffering from chronic malnutrition.

Floods and landslides in several districts throughout the country affected summer crop production in 2008, damaged farmland and severely cut crop yields, particularly of rice and millet. The north-western hill region suffered at least 30-50 per cent crop losses. According to a February 2009 FAO report, Nepal is one of the 32 countries with food crises requiring significant external assistance.