Photographs of ripe fields of wheat, the country's main food crop, or lush green paddy fields, are common on calendars and postcards in Pakistan, especially around Independence Day, celebrated last week. But behind the images of golden sheaves, lies an ugly reality.
“Pakistan’s per acre yield of crop has remained the same since 1999. Its 55 million acres of land produce just as much food as they did in 1999. But in 15 years, the population has increased by about 30 million, so the same amount of food is not enough to feed everyone,” Ibrahim Mughul, chairman of the Agri-Forum of Pakistan, which represents farmers, told IRIN.
In Sindh Province, home to 35 million people and with 14 million acres under crop cultivation, food insecurity is pervasive. More than 71 percent of families are food insecure. Of these, 17 percent are classed as food insecure with “severe hunger” and 34 percent with “moderate hunger”.
According to a report last month by the Sindh Government's Department for Planning and Development, hunger is widespread despite a plentiful supply of farmland.
Explanations vary as to why the province, with its rich agricultural land along the Indus river where rice, wheat, sugar and mangoes are grown, is not able to feed its relatively wealthy population (three times richer than the national average).
“This is primarily due to uneven land ownership in Sindh,” said Mohsin Nazir Surani, a senior official with Save the Children, one of the organizations making up the Pakistan Emergency Food Security Alliance. “For example, the majority of the land ownership lies with landlords while most of the population is landless.”
Large landowners in Sindh tend to concentrate on growing cash crops like cotton, or producing food for market that is unaffordable to poorer families.
Save the Children is currently the lead organization for the Alliance which is attempting to initiate action in Sindh to combat hunger.
“There is enough land to grow food on, but it does not belong to us,” said Abid Ahmed, a landless villager on the outskirts of Sindh’s Thatta District, who says “even an acre or so of land would feed my family of five.”
Many Sindh residents depend on local markets for their food, with around half the province’s population living in towns and cities, particularly Karachi and Hyderabad. The 2012-13 harvest was the lowest in four years which, combined with growing demand (and population), has pushed up prices.
“While domestic agricultural production is essential for attaining sustainable national food security, it alone cannot guarantee food security at the household level,” said World Food Programme (WFP) spokesperson in Pakistan Amjad Jamal.
“The key limiting factor to household food security in Pakistan’s context is the economic access [affordability], rather than the overall national production, and this is true to Sindh as well.”
This year, the country is set to import 800,000 to one million tons of wheat, according to media reports, to make up for the shortfall at home. “Yes, wheat is being imported from Central Asia,” Mughul told IRIN. Pakistan is normally a net exporter, and imports are up fourfold from last year.
“This has happened in the past as well. It creates its own problems as poor quality wheat, intended for use as animal fodder, has been brought in and mixed with Pakistani wheat in mills, offering very poor quality flour to people,” he said.
Farming yields in Pakistan have remained static mainly because of a lack of investment in research, machinery, and improved fertilizers and seeds.
WFP says a host of factors have increased food insecurity. These include recent heavy monsoon flooding, a rise in food prices, weak incomes for poor families, and energy problems. “That is particularly true in Sindh, where various studies suggest a poor state of household food security and nutrition situation,” said Jamal.
Food insecurity in the country’s second richest province is the worst in the country, according to the Sindh Planning Department. Of the 23 districts, seven are identified as having “extremely poor” conditions for access to food, hitting women and children especially hard. In the last 10 years, the number of districts with surplus food production fell from 11 to six.
The report says that 49.8 percent of children below five years of age in the province suffered stunting (a failure to reach the expected height for age); the national average is 43.7 percent. Around 40 percent of children were underweight while 17.5 percent were “wasted” or failing to attain expected weight for age. Unsurprisingly, poorer families were worst affected.
“Children are even more vulnerable. Most of the times, breast-feeding patterns are disturbed and children who are on solid/semi-solid foods don’t get priority,” Surani said.
The situation is one of acute concern to aid organizations. “We see hunger on a nearly daily basis when we are out in the fields,” Afzal Baloch, a worker for the charitable Eidhi Foundation, told IRIN.
He said hunger was now the “main concern” for more and more families across Sindh.
The nutrition of women also has a part to play in the general health of families and the quality of food children receive.
“Malnutritioned mothers simply cannot produce healthy children,” said Shershah Syed, founder of the National Health Forum NGO which works for the health of women.
“The patriarchal structure of society, in which women and children eat after the men have been fed, contributes to the problem,” Shah said. This means women often received the least amounts of food, especially as many prefer to leave what they could for their children.
“I simply never get enough to eat. I have six children, the youngest just three months old, and I cannot bear to see any of them go hungry, even if this means consuming very little myself,” said Abida Bibi, who lives just outside Karachi.
The Sindh government report also said poor health services, with some 38 percent of women receiving no antenatal care during pregnancy, contributed to nutritional problems.