Sun, May 20, 2012 - Page 9 News List

G8 leaders face calls to tackle hidden scourge of malnutrition

By Simon Tisdall  /  The Guardian, MAHACHE, MOZAMBIQUE

For their meal tonight, Olinda Novela and her children will dine on tree root soup. This is what they ate for breakfast and what they will likely eat tomorrow. The soup, made from mashed wood shavings boiled in salty water, has zero nutritional value. It is a thin, brown, evil-looking gruel. However, in remote, drought-stricken Mahache village, about five hours’ drive north from Mozambique’s capital, Maputo, there is simply no other choice.

Novela, 37, has four children still at home; another four have moved away. They are not actually starving — not yet, anyway — but they are chronically malnourished, according to visiting community health workers.

They have much in common with many other Mozambican children, with an estimated 44 percent of under-fives physically or mentally impaired — the technical term is stunted — because of severe malnutrition. Their weakened immune systems increase their susceptibility to malaria, HIV and other fatal diseases.

“I am hungry. Everyone is hungry. I am hungry all the time,” Novela said, standing outside her crumbling home of mud walls, wooden stakes and corrugated iron. “I feel desperate. I don’t know what will happen to me and the children if it does not rain.”

She says there has been no fresh food in Mahache since January. Olinda hitches her youngest, Alissi, on her hip. Alissi looks about one year old. In fact, she is 21 months. Olinda’s son, Leonardo, is seven, but looks like a four-year-old.

The problem extends far beyond Mahache and its scale is daunting. Experts predict that in the next decade, there will be 4 million chronically malnourished children in Mozambique, which despite recent, rapid economic growth and the discovery of large natural gas deposits, remains one of the world’s poorest countries.

Malnutrition in numbers

‧ 44 percent: Proportion of Mozambique’s under-fives who are stunted.

‧ 7 percent: Annual GDP growth in Mozambique.

‧ 54 percent: Proportion of population living below poverty line.

‧ 2.6 million: Number of children who die from malnutrition worldwide each year.

‧ 450 million: Number of children who will not grow properly over the next 15 years because of malnutrition.

‧ US$1 billion: Proposed G8 funding over next 10 years to lift 50 million people out of food poverty.

‧ 22 percent: Amount of G8 money pledged three years ago that had been spent by July last year.

Globally, malnutrition is the key cause of the deaths of 2.6 million children each year. On present trends, the bodies and brains of an additional 450 million worldwide will fail to develop properly because of inadequate diet over the next 15 years, according to a report published by Save the Children in February.

G8 leaders including US President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron have a chance to act this week. Food security — meaning, broadly, the availability of food at all times — was high on the agenda at their annual summit at Camp David, Maryland, that began on Friday. Before the meeting, Obama unveiled a “new alliance” initiative involving selected African countries and private sector companies. The plan entails a US$1 billion, 10-year effort to lift 50 million people out of food poverty through increased investment in agricultural development.

Pre-summit draft consultation documents identify six sub-Saharan African states as “vanguard countries,” including Mozambique. The leaders of another three, Ethiopia, Ghana and Tanzania, whose good governance records are deemed to be better than others, have been invited by Obama to attend the summit. If the initiative flourishes, it will be extended to other countries.

“The G8 confirms the ultimate goals of improving agricultural productivity, economic growth, food security and nutritional status and recognizes and affirms the central role of women and smallholder farmers in achieving these objectives,” the document says.

“Malnutrition is a hidden problem, a hidden killer,” said Carina Hassane Ismael of the independent Food Security and Nutrition Association in Maputo. “It’s not like a famine. It can be hard to spot because the children are not actually starving.”

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