Peri-Urban Yangon Approaches a Food and Nutrition Crisis in the Face of Loss of Livelihoods

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In the wake of Myanmar’s military coup on February 1, 2021, the UNOPS-managed Livelihoods and Food Security Fund (LIFT) signals a warning on food and nutrition.

In the wake of Myanmar’s military coup on February 1, 2021, the UNOPS-managed Livelihoods and Food Security Fund (LIFT) signals a warning about the rapidly deteriorating food and nutrition security of thousands of migrant workers and their children in impoverished peri-urban Yangon. As the political crisis continues to unfold, families, who were already surviving on the edge prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, are now living in growing insecurity, facing the complete loss of or reduced income, limited access to food amidst skyrocketing food prices and barriers to accessing health services. The threat of an emerging nutrition and health crisis in peri-urban Yangon is real as thousands of people, women and children in particular, can no longer meet their basic food and healthcare needs.

Even before the arrival of COVID-19, only 40 per cent of the Myanmar population could afford a diet that met their nutrient needs.[1] In some pockets of the country, including peri-urban Yangon, the nutrition context before 2020 reflected particular vulnerability including a high rate of child wasting (9.3%), stunting (28.8%) and maternal underweight (13.7%) while the coverage of essential nutrition and health services was low in Yangon’s informal settlements. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically worsened the nutrition situation with estimations suggesting an additional 110,000 children under-five have become wasted. The ongoing political crisis will certainly trigger a further stark increase in hunger and child malnutrition, particularly among a growing number of vulnerable households in peri-urban townships.

Access to food is becoming harder

The widespread closure of markets, shops and grocery stores has limited access to food, especially for the most vulnerable families. Where food is available, prices are rising, particularly for staple foods such as rice, oil and fuel which have already gone up on average by 10-15 per cent and continue rising, intensifying the food insecurity of the poorest families. Many families struggle to afford basic foodstuffs, let alone all those other food products that make up a diverse, nutrient-dense diet. This puts nutritionally vulnerable groups, particularly young children, adolescents and women of reproductive age at greater risk of undernutrition.

A mother of a six-day old infant in Shwe Pyi Tar said, “I really want to have meat sometimes, but it is not affordable for me.”

Loss of income is widespread

At the same time, workers in peri-urban Yangon are facing significantly reduced income.“None of my family members has a job now. My husband used to drive a sand truck before... We are not financially secure at the moment,” said a mother of a fifteen-month-old in Shwe Pyi Tar.

Many of the factories that sustain peri-urban families have shut down due to reduced orders and supply chain issues; while others face significant cash flow issues. This has led to significant numbers of workers (primarily migrant women) losing their employment altogether with many factories refusing, or unable, to pay outstanding wages.

Facing food shortages, loss of work, and increasing violence, many of the migrants previously employed in the industrial sector have left Yangon, affecting incomes of many smallholder urban vendors. For those who remain, there are further challenges to livelihoods as many are facing debt or have had their assets destroyed. For those who have managed to save money in bank accounts or who are reliant on social protection schemes, there are challenges in accessing cash, as most bank branches are closed. Khin is the head of a twelve person household (with 9 adults and 3 children), which relies on the salary of two adults. She said that although they can purchase food now, they cannot access their money, as banks are closed and ATMs are not reliable.

Reductions in income coupled with movement restrictions further hinder people’s access to healthcare, medicine and other basic needs.

Nutrition and health services are at standstill

In many parts of the city, health facilities are either not functioning or performing at reduced capacity. Difficulties crossing townships mean that health professionals cannot reach patients; this is a particular problem for midwives unable to provide safe and sanitary conditions for pregnant women to deliver their babies and HIV-positive individuals who face challenges accessing HIV services and antiretroviral medication. Even where facilities do function, lack of or reduced resources, military occupation of public hospitals, and restrictions in movement lead to limited or lack of access to routine and emergency nutrition and health services including pre and postnatal care, treatment of malnutrition, breastfeeding counseling, and immunizations, among other services.

A mother of a six-month-old child reported that, “due to the political situation, we are afraid to go to clinics and hospitals now.”

Rise in violence against women

With many peri-urban townships under martial law, communities are facing aggression and random acts of violence on the streets, at workplaces, and increasingly in their homes. Women garment workers have taken a predominant position in demonstrations against the military. In addition to facing the violent crackdown of such demonstrations, there is an increase in incidents of gender-based violence and sexual harassment, which poses another threat to women and children’s nutrition security.

Insecurity is causing spikes in psychosocial stress

Escalating violence affects women’s health and caregiving capacity. Moreover, children’s mental health and wellbeing is a major concern, as children have now been out of school for one year and are surrounded by an increasingly insecure context.

A young mother in Yangon’s industrial zone said, “I feel depressed due to shortage of money. Adults are scared and my baby cries all the time because of the noise at night.”

Coordinated nutrition response is required for peri-urban Yangon

To prevent the sharp increase in hunger and malnutrition, the Livelihoods and Food Security Fund (LIFT) is engaging with partners to scope out immediate needs and respond in close coordination with the Access to Health Fund and the Humanitarian Assistance and Resilience Programme Facility (HARP-F). Partners are mobilising to support a series of social protection interventions such as in-kind transfers, vouchers and/or cash transfers, nutrition counseling, breastfeeding support and treatment of severe acute malnutrition in the absence of functional public services. Response will also focus on ensuring widespread access to safe water and sanitation services and facilities to safeguard health and nutrition. Wherever possible, Social Behaviour Change Communication will continue to support the adoption of positive nutrition, health and hygiene behaviours. This will be combined with legal counseling, psychosocial support and child protection interventions, such as counseling services to women, children, youth and others who have been exposed to physical or emotional trauma. Where available, shelter accomodation will also be offered to the most vulnerable.

[1] WFP. (2019). Fill the Nutrient Gap Survey