KARACHI, July 30: The federal government has put a national programme aimed at tackling the issue of food security and malnutrition, which was launched with the collaboration of the World Food Programme, on the back burner following the exit of Yousuf Raza Gilani as prime minister, it emerged on Monday.
This was disclosed during a question-answer and discussion session on ‘Malnutrition — impacts and strategies’ when a child health consultant from a private medical university asked about the status of the first ‘National Zero-Hunger Action Plan’ launched in March.
She was told that things did not move in the right direction, unfortunately.
The session was part of a two-day workshop on ‘Multi-sectoral nutrition policy, guidance notes and strategic and operational planning’, held at a hotel by an international non-governmental organisation, Save the Children, and the Sindh Planning and Development Department.
In reply to a question by the senior chief (nutrition), planning commission, Islamabad, Mohammad Ayub, who was moderating the session, WFP officer Rizwan Bajwa said that the Pakistan government had signed a Letter of Intent (LoI) with the World Food Programme about four months back.
Under the LoI, Pakistan was to donate 500,000 tonnes of surplus wheat to the WFP annually for four to five years for making high-energy food products and iron-fortified flour for onward supply to the poverty-hit population and schoolchildren in the rural areas of the country to combat malnutrition and improve food security among vulnerable groups.
He said the WFP allocated a significant amount to cover the associated processing and manufacturing cost and supply to schools in various parts of the country. But the federal ministry of food security and research, which had initially pursued the case with relevant authorities, had now slowed down its efforts or failed to muster the needed support from other ministries in the wake of change of the prime minister, and as such the WFP could not have been provided with the promised wheat so far.
Later, Mr Bajwa told Dawn that the donation of wheat was a largest demonstration of in-kind support and strong commitment by the government to address the issues of food security and malnutrition in the country.
Under the plan, he said that each primary school student in rural areas was to get 10 kilos of fortified flour every month, which could have helped increase students’ enrolment and cut their drop-out rate in schools.
Besides, it was planned that students would be provided high-energy biscuits, he said, adding that the WFP had already negotiated with flour mills and dietary food manufacturers for the project, which was supposed to be operational by June.
Earlier, the participants were told that Pakistan had a very high rate of malnutrition as 44 per cent of children under five were stunted and 32 per cent underweight. Maternal nutrition was also described as a significant problem, i.e. 15 per cent of women of reproductive age had chronic energy deficiency and one third of women were either overweight or obese, indicating a double burden of under-and-over nutrition.
It was further said that the sectors that were involved in a multi-sector response to malnutrition typically included agriculture, social protection, education, industry/private sector development and health.
The purpose of adopting a multi-sector approach was to address in a sustainable manner the underlying causes of malnutrition such as low level of awareness, food insecurity, poverty, high rates of infection and social exclusion including gender inequity.
Dr Luc Laviolette, nutrition specialist at the World Bank, said that malnutrition reduced productivity in three ways — illness and deaths causing costly inefficiencies, decreased physical productivity and impaired cognitive development affecting school performance and productivity. Overall annual loss to the economy of Pakistan due to malnutrition had been estimated between two and three per cent of the gross domestic product, he noted.
In his presentation based on a secondary analysis of Sindh data from the National Nutritional Survey-2011, James Levinson said that only 53 per cent of household heads were literate in the province, only 32pc of households had piped water for drinking, income level was low with only 43pc houses having cement/ slake lime floor. Only 38pc mothers were literate and 31pc mothers had six or more pregnancies, he added.
Discussing child malnutrition, he said that while 41pc children under five were underweight, the rate of stunting and wasting among children was 50pc and 18pc, respectively. Unicef defines stunting as low height for age and wasting as low weight for height.
Stunting rate among children in Sindh was higher than that of India’s (48pc), Nepal’s (45pc), Bangladesh’s (43pc), DR Congo’s (43pc) and Sri Lanka’s (17pc), he noted.
Women’s nutrition was no better, he added. Only 52pc women had normal weight, while 24pc were underweight, 59pc pregnant women were anaemic. He said that malnutrition was worse where hands were not washed and where soap was not available. Also, food insecurity had increased child malnutrition, he noted.
However, Mr Lavinson added, evidence indicated that improving food security alone would not address malnutrition, because 39 pc of children in food secure Sindh households were found stunted.
Other speakers during the interactive sessions highlighted the need for increased agriculture produce, women education and adequate dietary diversity for young children, improved pure water supply, sanitation and hand washing. They also called for multi-sectoral and integrated policy against under nutrition and malnutrition, which could be implemented individually at sector level.
Dr Asif Farrukhi of United Nations Children’s Fund, Abdul Fattah Tunio, chief agriculture of Sindh planning and development department, Arshad Mahmood of Save the Children, Dr Salma Sheikh of Liaquat University of Medical and Health Sciences, Dr Tanveer Sheikh, Iqbal Ahmaed Detho, Taufiq A. Sheikh, Dr Dur-e-Shahwar, Dr Najeeb and Dr Shahid spoke during the programme.