Recent United Nations Regional Report, “Asia and the Pacific Regional Overview of Food Security and Nutrition”, has made some startling revelations which our Policy makers need to look into with right mindset. The report was published by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), World Food Programme (WFP) and the World Health Organization (WHO). If the contents of the report are taken seriously, then we need question the very basic argument for urbanisation.
Urbanisation is taking place in whole of Asia at a rapid pace and at the current rate of urbanization, by 2030, more than 55 percent of the Asian population will be living in cities and towns. The two largest population centres in Asia, India and China, are expected to account for 28 percent of the projected growth of the world’s urban population by 2050. India is projected to add 400 million urban dwellers and China 290 million (United Nations, 2014). The rise in urban population is also seen in the growth of megacities, or cities with over 10 million inhabitants.
While urbanization can bring economic opportunity, the growth is often not equitable and is associated with a concurrent prevalence of high and sustained undernutrition in children with rapidly rising rates of obesity in children and adults.
There are multiple causes of child malnutrition – poverty, poor access to food markets and health services, and poor knowledge and practices for nutrition, health, water and sanitation. This complexity means that eradicating child malnutrition cannot be addressed through one sector alone and requires shared actions implemented through multi-sectoral approaches that cut across food systems, health, sanitation, social protection and education.
There is no denial of the fact that urbanization promotes social and economic advancement, and improves quality of life. However, poorly planned and managed urbanization can also have severe negative consequences for food security and nutrition. Urban food environment has become complex due to their heavier reliance on markets, complex logistics and distribution systems, and heterogeneous and mobile populations, require more nuanced and carefully articulated responses. Local governments must play a central role in improving urban food systems by providing essential urban infrastructure, improving food systems, and promoting targeted interventions. Food, nutrition and health-related agencies need to join hands with them in strengthening their technical capacity in these areas.
Incidences of climate-related disasters like drought and floods have been rising. Natural disasters impact food security and nutrition through reduced food production, which can then cascade down to the entire food value chain, affecting livelihoods and causing economic and agricultural loss. More importantly, natural disasters affect the poor more than anybody else. Such disasters have significant impacts on economic access to food by disrupting jobs and cutting wage incomes. Beyond the short term, disasters can impact the agriculture sector through loss of assets and rural infrastructure, and through increased disease outbreaks. Studies also show such shocks worsen child malnutrition and health by damaging vital infrastructure supporting health and water systems, sanitation and hygiene.
Traditionally, the levels of undernutrition and hunger have been higher in rural areas compared to urban areas and, consequently, the policy focus was concentrated on rural areas. That may be the reason why hunger and lack of nutrition in urban environment had rarely been a subject of discussion among the urban planners. In fact, price and market shocks have a greater impact on urban households than on rural households because urban households rely more on the market for food and other services, and the urban poor are impacted more than the urban non-poor.
It was assumed by our urban planners that urbanisation speeds up the economic growth which in turn helps in driving out poverty along with its associated evils like hunger. In other words, our planners had assumed that hunger and poverty will be automatically taken care of by rapid urbanisation. However, this report has given an altogether new dimension to the urbanisation and nothing can be assumed to be achieved but they have to be planned carefully and also need to be implemented meticulously. Smart cities themselves may not be successful in driving out hunger and poverty unless they are implemented along with issue specific programmes aimed at eradication of poverty and hunger.
It is true that there is no escape from urbanization, the pace of which is only going to go up in the coming years and therefore, it is important to ensure that rapidly expanding cities are planned in an inclusive, sustainable and nutrition-sensitive manner. There should be proper coordination between national and local governments, civil society, the private sector, and regional and international communities to tackle the problem. Local governments and urban planners must become the new nutrition partners and nutrition policy advocators in tackling these challenges. Also remember, if not managed well, rapid urbanization can also lead to dysfunctional food systems, resulting in undernutrition and obesity occurring within the same city or even the same household.