A flood victim receives food aid from Laotian relief pesonnel in Sanamxai, Attapeu province, on July 27, 2018. (NHAC NGUYEN / AFP)
VIENTIANE - Climate change, which leads to floods and drought, is one of the many challenges faced by Lao children under the age of five, and can increase their risk of malnutrition.
Secretary of the National Nutrition Committee (NNC), Associate Professor Phouthone Muongpak, said malnutrition is the main reason for high rates of stunting, wasting and underweight among the under fives, which are currently estimated at 33 percent, 9 percent and 22 percent respectively.
“Good nutrition is very important because if children are malnourished at a young age, they will grow up to be unhealthy adults,” Phouthone said. “Unfortunately, changing weather patterns that cause floods and drought are proving a challenge for us in fulling the Sustainable Development Goals.”
This year, the NNC is spending billions of kip to promote a nutrition program among more than 360,000 malnourished children across the country, aimed at improving health and living standards. This includes thousands of children under the age of five who are indirectly affected by floods and drought every year.
Malnutrition is the main reason for high rates of stunting, wasting and underweight among Lao children under the age of five, said Secretary of the National Nutrition Committee Phouthone Muongpak
The NNC believes that malnutrition may result in a low income for Laos in the future, as it causes economic losses estimated at US$197 million a year, or 2.4 percent of the gross domestic product.
Every year, the government works with development partners to seek ways to reduce malnutrition in children under the age of five.
But Phouthone, who is also deputy minister of health, said that unexpected weather events are a serious obstacle to lowering the malnutrition rate. To deal with this situation, the NNC needs extra funding and a plan B to cope with unexpected emergencies.
The World Health Organization defines malnutrition as deficiencies, excesses or imbalances in a person’s intake of energy and/or nutrients.
The term malnutrition covers two broad groups of conditions. One is undernutrition, which includes stunting (low height for age), wasting (low weight for height), and underweight (low weight for age), and the other is micronutrient deficiencies or insufficiencies (a lack of important vitamins and minerals).
The National Nutrition Committee has encouraged nutrition committees in Khammuan and Attapeu provinces to record the number of children under five in flood-affected areas so they can raise money to help reduce child malnutrition in these areas as quickly as possible.
Phouthone said the effort to reduce malnutrition involves many sectors of government. Today, the Ministry of Health is working with the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, Ministry of Education and Sports, and the Ministry of Planning and Investment.
The deputy minister said the media is also an important partner in spreading the word about nutrition by using various channels to help the government explain what a healthy diet consists of.
“Even though we are working hard to reduce malnutrition and are continuing to promote our nutrition program, our messages may not reach the target group if they are not regularly conveyed through the media,” said Phouthone.
Last year, heavy flooding in Khammuan and Attapeu provinces affected the nutrition programme, putting more children at risk of poor health.
The Ministry of Health has set up the National Strategy on Nutrition for 2016-2025, which explains what nutritious food is and ways to provide it, such as the best way to cook food so that nutrients are maintained. The strategy also aims to train more nutritionists so they can pass on essential messages about nutrition in local communities. This includes explaining the negative impacts of wasting and stunting.
The Ministry of Health estimated that in 2011 about 360,000 children under the age of five were malnourished. Health workers believe that about 6,900 children, or 40 percent of 17,300 children under five, died as a result of malnutrition in 2011.
Phouthone said malnutrition is a costly condition because children are always sickly. He said that despite remarkable economic growth, Laos has one of the highest rates of malnutrition in the region.
Director of the Agriculture and Forestry Department in Khammuan province, Bounchanh Xaypanya, said that in August last year extensive flooding in the province damaged more than 26,000 hectares of rice. Before the floods, the planned rice yield was 96,200 tonnes. Flooding causes the risk of a rice shortage, which can ultimately lead to more malnutrition.
“When the floodwaters receded, we immediately provided rice seeds so that people could replant their crops and quickly recover from the disaster. In addition, specialists taught people how to grow vegetables and rice in the right way,” said Bounchanh. About 10,500 hectares of rice were replanted in the dry season, yielding 44,100 tonnes along with almost 9,800 hectares of vegetables.
When comparing the amount of rice lost to flooding in the wet season and the amount planted in the dry season, the province had a shortfall of 52,100 tonnes. Officials sought urgent assistance both within Laos and abroad to ensure sufficient food for more than 30,000 affected people, including children under the age of five.
Khammuan province has a population of about 400,000 and is the country’s largest rice producer. Some 43 percent of land equal to 132,000 hectares is given over to agriculture and can produce about 360,000 tonnes of paddy rice each year.
This high yield means Khammuan is self-sufficient in rice and the government estimates that each person consumes an average of 280 kg of paddy rice each year. The means people consume about 112,000 tonnes in total and the province has 248,000 tonnes of rice in store, including 60,000 tonnes of paddy rice for export. In addition, traders from nearby provinces buy paddy rice to sell in their own communities.
Khammuan also grows 15,000 hectares of vegetables in the dry season and 5,000 hectares in the wet season.
Bounchanh said that this year the Agriculture and Forestry Department has supervised the planting of 84,365 hectares of wet season rice to ensure everyone has enough to eat. The department is also arranging for rice to be planted on at least 60,000 hectares this dry season. One hectare of wet season rice yields 4.2 tonnes of paddy rice, while in the dry season one hectare yields 3.7 tonnes of paddy rice.
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