KARACHI: Almost half of Balochistan’s households face mild to severe food insecurity, according to a new report released by the central bank on Monday.

In its third quarterly report on the state of the economy, the State Bank of Pakistan (SBP) noted provincial disparities in terms of food security in Pakistan.

Read: Special report: Is Pakistan food-secure?

In Balochistan, at least 30 per cent 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).

Alarmingly, of the 36.9pc “food insecure” households in the country, 18.3pc face “severe” food insecurity.

Only 63.1 per cent 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 Unicef’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 those seven countries that cumulatively account for two-thirds of the world’s under-nourished population

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). This means that around 50 million people in the country are unable to access basic needs given their incomes. Most of these people dwell in rural areas where the poverty rate is 30.7pc.

A high population growth and unfavourable water and climatic conditions in the country mean that concerns regarding food security may increase manifolds 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.

With per capita income of $1,497, Pakistan is still struggling with issues such as under-nourishment, 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.”

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 these 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 under-nourished population (along with Bangladesh, China, Congo, Ethiopia, India and Indonesia).”

According to the report, under-5 malnutrition costs heavily. About $2.24bn is estimated as the loss of future labour force resulting from under-5 mortality; $1bn is the estimated healthcare expense, which the families incur to address diarrhea and respiratory infection among children; $3.7bn 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.

The bottom 60pc of households in the country spend a substantial part of their incomes (45pc on average) on food, has compromised their nutritional security. Even if prices are relatively low and stable, poorest families 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.

Only 0.3pc of the population in Balochistan and 1.8pc in Punjab benefit from social protection programmes of some kind. This 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 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,” said the report.

Currently, water productivity of most of the 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.

Published in Dawn, July 16th, 2019