BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan — A nation’s future depends upon its children. Unfortunately, when those children are underfed, undernourished and undereducated, that nation may be facing a long road out of poverty. Malnutrition in Kyrgyzstan is such that it threatens the nation’s social and economic future. But is there an end in sight?
Kyrgyzstan, otherwise known as the Kyrgyz Republic, is a Central Asian country with a land area roughly equivalent to the state of Utah. A former Soviet state, the landlocked Kyrgyzstan only attained independence in 1991 and has struggled forward for a number of reasons.
One of the major forces limiting development in Kyrgyzstan is the region’s proclivity for natural disasters. Earthquakes, floods and mudslides are common, and in a country with as slight an infrastructure as Kyrgyzstan’s, the devastation these disasters cause is immense. Recent roadblocks to progress include an intense drought and a hard winter that occurred consecutively in 2008. This crisis was followed a short while later by a government overthrow in 2010 and then a series of ongoing ethnic conflicts.
All of these problems contribute to the wide-spread issue of food insecurity and malnutrition in Kyrgyzstan. According to the World Food Programme (WFP), as much as 38 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s population is living in poverty. 24 percent of the nation’s people are living in a state of food insecurity, and another 12 percent are at risk of becoming such.
This disjointed access to food contributes to a high child mortality rate. Though the nation’s rate of child mortality ranks alongside that of Nicaragua and Mongolia. However, what is most alarming is the number of these deaths that tie back to malnutrition. As many as 22 percent of cases of childhood mortality result from poor nutrition, all of which could be prevented with modern medical knowledge.
Among those who survive, the picture is not much brighter. An estimated 18 percent of Kyrgyz children are malnourished, and 14 percent experience stunted growth. Malnutrition is a greater problem in rural regions than in urban ones. In cities, approximately 10.8 percent of children experience stunted growth, while the average jumps to 15.7 percent in rural areas.
Malnutrition in Kyrgyzstan is taking a real toll on not only the Kyrgyz people but on the nation as a whole. An estimated $32 million in earnings is lost every year due to deaths and lost productivity among the developmentally disabled. This missing money could be spent on health and nutrition infrastructure but instead goes to waste.
Doctors have identified some of the causes of malnutrition in Kyrgyzstan and are working to combat them. One major issue has been a lack of breastfeeding among new mothers. In 2006, only 65 percent of women breastfed at birth, and by the time their children were three months old, only 40 percent of women were still breastfeeding. A report by UNICEF encourages mothers to breastfeed until their children are six months old, and it is also advised that pregnant and breastfeeding mothers take zinc and iron supplements to prevent diarrhea and anemia. These two measures could relieve much of the malnutrition in Kyrgyzstan.
Another cause of malnutrition in children is the low nutrient density of the typical Kyrgyz diet, not to mention the poor iodization of salt. Unfortified rice and pasta are two staple foods in Kyrgyzstan, neither of which contain the necessary nutrients that aid a child’s growth. Lack of proper nutrients and of iodine causes developmental and mental defects in young children, ones which can dramatically affect a child’s well-being. The UNICEF report urges Kyrgyzstan to adopt universal salt iodization and to invest in fortified flour, believing that these simple steps could save thousands of lives.
Although many Kyrgyz children are in dire conditions, there is some good news. The WFP entered Kyrgyzstan in 2011 with a mission of bringing food security to the nation’s most at-risk populations, and they seem to be having some success.
One way the WFP is doing this is by building water reservoirs in rural areas. These reservoirs not only provide water security but also provide the means for irrigation, allowing farmers to produce higher yields, even surpluses that they may sell to yield a profit. In addition, local laborers who provide the muscle to build the reservoirs receive food assistance as payment: 200 kg of wheat flour and enriched vegetable oil, both of which help to tackle malnutrition in the present.
Ultimately, while doctor recommendations and efforts by the WFP are aiding some Kyrgyz people, the extent to which they can truly help is limited. Larger programs—especially ones with national and governmental participation—are needed to alleviate malnutrition in Kyrgyzstan and to bring its people out of poverty.
– Patricia Mackey