May 23, 2014
Pakistan is facing a silent crisis of malnutrition that is amongst the worst in the world and has not improved for decades. According to 2011 National Nutrition Survey, more than 1.5 million children in Pakistan are currently suffering from acute malnutrition, making them susceptible to infectious diseases which may even lead to death. This needs to be urgently addressed in order to safeguard the country’s future development and prosperity. Keeping the fact in mind, that nearly half of Pakistan’s children are chronically malnourished undermining their own mental and physical growth as well as the country’s prospects, the respective provincial governments must urgently recognize and respond to this challenge.
Without this situation changing, Pakistan risks suffering from a ‘demographic nightmare’ of a growing unskilled, economically unproductive population, rather than the ‘demographic dividend’ which has powered its neighbours ‘growing prosperity. The situation of Pakistan is currently worse than that in much of sub-Saharan Africa. This is a life and death crisis for many but also causes impaired development with long-life effects.
According to IPPBNU report, the current malnutrition crisis in Pakistan has been estimated to cost the economy 3% of GDP per year. To put this in perspective, the energy crisis is estimated to cost 2% of GDP. This is due to the estimated impact of malnutrition on learning, earning and health.
International examples show that improved nutrition improves growth. Pakistan cannot sustain this drain on economy, risking the country to be left behind in the global economy if it fails to act soon.
If Pakistan implements even the health sector interventions to address malnutrition, rates of stunting (chronic malnutrition) could be cut by one third, but other sectors such as social protection, water and sanitation, agriculture and education also need to play their part, and to see this challenge as core to their role. This requires commitment from leadership to plan and implement multi-sectoral interventions. Policy makers must give priority to evidence-based and high-impact nutrition interventions as they have not yet been implemented at scale in Pakistan.
The increasing production of wheat is not enough as malnutrition rates are still static. Households and individuals need to have access to enough quantity and quality of food, and need to be free from diseases to avoid malnutrition. This is why many sectors, stakeholders must be involved in tackling malnutrition, and this needs a high level, sustained leadership.
As iron and iodine deficiency in childhood reduce ones IQ, children who are malnourished learn less at school and earn less when they grow up. It also makes the children prone to acquiring communicable diseases like measles ending up with complications. Malnutrition reduces the effectiveness of certain vaccinations. Addressing malnutrition is one of the best investments Pakistan can make in its future. Government must prioritise the evidence-based policies and programs, which can address this crisis. If prioritised, malnutrition can be ended in a generation in Pakistan.