Unemployment, food prices spur growing hunger

Rising unemployment and food prices and a sluggish economy are taking their toll on Bangladesh, where a growing number of people are struggling to survive.

“If I do not get work tomorrow or become ill, all my family members will go hungry,” said Nur Islam, a 45-year-old Dhaka resident who hauls a rickshaw around town for US$3 a day to feed his wife and three children.

About 40 percent of Bangladesh’s 160 million people live on less than $1 a day and are food insecure, according to government figures, and a rapidly expanding population - combined with rising unemployment, inflation, the economic slowdown and unpredictable weather-related disasters - is leading the country deeper into a food crisis.

“In recent years, devastating cyclones and floods, the dramatic increase in food prices in 2008 and the global recession have all impacted economic growth in Bangladesh, which in turn has led to a deterioration of food security and the nutritional situation in the country,” Emamul Haque, spokesperson for the World Food Programme (WFP) in Bangladesh, told IRIN.

According to WFP, the number of people who consume less than the minimum daily recommended amount of food rose from 47 million in 1990, to 56 million in 2005. Following floods and Cyclone Sidr in 2007, that figure peaked in 2008 at 65 million.

Too poor to buy food

Nearly 60 percent of food insecure households said they were going hungry due to insufficient income, according to a study by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS).

“The lack of economic growth is the main reason for food insecurity in Bangladesh. Sometimes there is availability of food, but the poor people do not have the purchasing power,” said Quazi Shahabuddin, researcher and former director-general of the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies.

The Asian Development Bank said the economy is slowing, with sluggish investments and a decline in exports. Government figures indicate unemployment has risen to 5.1 percent in 2009, from 4.2 percent in 2006, meaning 2.7 million unemployed in 2009, compared to 2.1 million in 2006. 

Photo: David Swanson/IRIN
Men queue for food assistance in the wake of Cyclone Sidr

Meanwhile, food inflation rose sharply from 0.3 percent in June 2009 to 10.9 percent in February 2010, the World Bank reported in April. In March, the price of rice in Dhaka was 17.8 percent higher than it was in March 2009.

More people, less to eat

If the present trend of population growth - two million people per year - continues, Bangladesh will face even greater food shortages in the next few years, reaching a critical level by 2050, according to a study by Unnayan Onneshan, a Dhaka-based research group.

Climate change is also contributing to food insecurity, leading to concerns that rice production will drop. In a report released in May, experts estimated that as a result of climate change, rice production in Bangladesh will fall by 80 million tons by 2050 - or about 3.9 percent each year.

“The soil is heavily degraded in many parts of the country, fresh water availability for irrigation is increasingly scarce, and natural disasters regularly damage part of the agricultural output,” said Shenggen Fan, director-general of the International Food Policy Research Institute, at the recent Bangladesh Food Security Investment Forum.

Such food insecurity severely affects the population’s health, with nearly seven million children under five underweight and three million who are acutely malnourished, according to WFP.

“Along with India, Bangladesh has the highest proportion in the world of newborns with low birth weight. Micronutrient malnutrition - the silent hunger - is also at alarming levels in Bangladesh, affecting nearly 30 million women and 12 million children under five years old,” said John Aylieff, WFP country representative.

“There is a clear moral imperative to address malnutrition in Bangladesh. But beyond this, we must recognize that addressing malnutrition would have a significant [beneficial] economic impact,” Aylieff said, citing a recent estimate that iron deficiency anaemia among Bangladeshi children alone caused an annual gross domestic product loss of more than $4 billion per year.