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Tsunami disaster – countries in crisis

Maldives: Survey helps combat malnutrition

© UNICEF Maldives/2005/McBride
In the Maldives a lack of fresh produce – and a diet consisting of mostly fish and rice – has led to one of the worst malnutrition rates in South Asia.

By Rob McBride

KUDAHUVADHOO ISLAND, Maldives, December 2005 – Shafts of sunlight pierced the acrid wood smoke from the open fires. Inside the communal kitchen lunch was nearly ready. Today, as most other days, it was the ubiquitous fish and rice.

The residents of this temporary camp on Kudahuvadhoo island would not have expected the menu to be any different. They – like previous generations who grew up on these sandy, virtually barren atolls – are used to a diet lacking in fresh produce. Due to the widespread displacement of islanders by the tsunami, the extent to which poor diet has affected the health of the population has only now been fully realised.

“People – when they think of the Maldives with this pristine, paradise environment and lobster buffets – would find it very hard to understand that these islands suffer from a chronic malnutrition problem” said Ken Maskall, UNICEF Representative in the Maldives.

In fact, with a quarter of children under 5 suffering stunted growth, the Maldives has one of the worst malnutrition rates in South Asia. Apart from a short supply of greens, a lack of education and too many sugary foods are to blame.

To combat the problem, the biggest nutrition survey of its kind has been conducted here.

© UNICEF Maldives/2005/McBride
UNICEF and its partners are working on ways to grow more fruit and vegetables on the sandy atolls of the Maldives.

Supported by UNICEF, teams from the Maldives’ Ministry of Health have been going from island to island on live-aboard boats, carrying out a detailed study among mothers with children under 3 years old, gathering information on what kinds of food they have been feeding them.

Already some of the findings have painted a disturbing picture. Aishath Naaz, of the Ministry of Health, explained: “On those islands [where] they are not getting fruit and vegetables, they are used to [serving] rice with fish. That’s the only thing they can get.”

She was speaking on the island of Kudahuvadhoo in the camp for people displaced from other parts of the atoll. All around members of her team were busy filling in questionnaires with residents, while others were taking weight and height measurements of infants and children under 3.

Ken Maskall knows the value of this study. “This study will enable us to find out when and how the malnutrition problems start and plan interventions that will lead to a change in the situation”

Maskall believes that, in the long term, sustainable solutions need to be found, utilizing small pilot schemes, to make these sandy islands more fertile. But at least those programmes are underway. It is a problem unexpectedly brought to the fore by the tsunami, and one which might eventually be solved by resources allocated in the wake of the tragedy.

As she was preparing to finish her work on this island and move to the next, Aishath Naaz was similarly optimistic. “We will analyze all the data, and identify the islands that need help,” she said. “In the Maldives we don’t want to have any islands which do not have good education and health.”




UNICEF’s Rob McBride reports from the Maldives on a new survey being implemented to help combat malnutrition.

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