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High rates of undernutrition in Pakistan are the result of a fatal combination of food insecurity, lack of access to health care and high poverty rates. More than half of children under 5 years are stunted due to chronic malnutrition, which is the 3rd worst rate in the world.
Pakistan, with its 216 million inhabitants, is a grain basket for its neighbours. The country is one of the main producers of rice and wheat in the world, where the agricultural sector employs more than 40% of the population.
In the province of Sindh, the stunting rate rises up to 45.5% and wasting is at 23.3% – both dangerously high. Pakistan is one of the world’s most vulnerable country to climate change and is permanently exposed to hazards such as heavy rainfalls, floods and intensified heat waves, often causing these rates to further increase. In recent years, the lack of rainfall leaves little room for communities to find job opportunities and enough water resources to share.
In 2019, the country faced a devastating locust invasion, likely to be repeated again in 2020. Locust swarms attacked crops and fields, posing another serious threat to agriculture as it can cause the loss of almost entire harvests and stores of seeds and grain. In the second largest province of Sindh, where we operate, locusts have already caused heavy long-term damage with a further incursion expected in June. Efforts to spray fields and reduce the potential locust invasion have been diluted given the focus on Covid-19.
“The pandemic and the disruption of trade, movement and markets could reduce production and the availability of resources for people.” Rao Ayub Khan, Senior Agricultural Manager at Action contre la Faim in Pakistan.
Rural communities are harvesting wheat and plan on cultivating crops as cotton, rice and chilies. Agricultural areas represent 60% of the land in the country, this activity requires an abundant water supply, yet the vast majority of small farmers live and work in arid areas.
"Nearly one Pakistani out of four lives in drought-prone areas."
Because of water scarcity for irrigation, the farmers living in these areas can only cultivate 20% to 25% of their lands. According to the report of the Consortium on Natural Disasters in Sindh Province (NDC), only 42% of people living in drought-affected areas are able to cultivate their agricultural lands.
In areas with limited water resources, our teams find less and less varieties of food available in local markets. The food supply is becoming saturated, with relatively higher prices and poor-quality food. Kitchen gardens, an important component of our programs, should be encouraged as they provide families with a sustainable source of fruits and vegetables needed to vary their diets. There also needs to be urgent action to ensure good quality of seeds at local level as the covid19 situation has led to reduced availability. Some communities are reporting having to reprepare and plant 3 times this year given the poor quality of seeds.
“More collaboration is needed at district level to fill gaps and to reach every family in need. We remain vigilant to all other factors affecting food insecurity is very important,” Ayesha Aziz, Head of Nutrition Programs at Action Against Hunger in Pakistan.
Rural areas are less prepared to respond to the current multiple crises in the country. Even though the urban population has more access to food and information regarding the Covid-19 pandemic, small farmers need to be supported and informed about the risks and means of protection against the virus while being able to pursue their economic activities. The prevalence of fake news is severely affecting these efforts.
As Pakistan is increasingly affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, the introduction of lockdown measures in March has raised multiple concerns about the continuation of agricultural activities. The province of Sindh was the first to implement a lockdown by enforcing movement restrictions on the territory and the closure of businesses. Drastic lockdown measures could have a domino effect on food security not just in Pakistan, putting millions of people at risk.
Wheat production, which is vital to the country’s economy, is likely to drop considerably compared to previous years. Farmers have been forced to sell their produce at low prices on the markets, reducing their ability to grow the next cereal crop. On top of that, the majority of small farmers do not have sufficient storage space to keep food and seeds for a relatively long period of time. The lack of storage capacity resulted in considerable losses of food and income in the coming months. If the large quantity of wheat seeds disappear from the existing food system and farmers do not have the resources to cultivate, the population could become food insecure.
"Around 2.9 million people need humanitarian assistance in Pakistan."
With the Covid-19 pandemic, people are very scared, they are afraid to go to health centers and transport is barely operational again. This situation could worsen health problems especially undernutrition. Despite lockdown measures, we maintain our nutrition programs in rural areas in the province of Sindh which was the first one to report confirmed Covid-19 cases.
As of today, nearly 62,665 severely malnourished children have received treatment by our teams under the European Union funded Program for Improved Nutrition in Sindh. Powdered micronutrient supplements and the use of iron and folic acid supplements are crucial not only to meet nutritional needs, but also to strengthen the immune system of the affected population. Lack of micronutrients can predispose children and mothers to a variety of infections and viruses, including Covid-19. Our aid workers on the ground are equipped with protective equipment to continue accompanying mothers and children in remote villages. These door-to-door outreach missions enable people to receive necessary treatment in the absence of public transportation and despite the restrictions on movement due to lockdown measures.
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