‘On the brink’: drought and politics leave Afghans fighting famine

Aid collapse after Taliban took control means just 2% of people have enough to eat , UN says

Displaced women queue for food aid in Kabul

In his seven decades, Mehrajuddin has been a police commander, a fighter for the mujahideen, a district governor and a prosecutor, and even briefly worked in Europe. Until this year, he has never struggled to feed his family.

Now they have just one meal a day, hard discs of stale bread soaked in water until they soften to mush. “All the family are starving,” he says bluntly as he waits at a food distribution centre in Kabul for a handout of lentils, rice, flour and oil. “I even worry about dying, because if it happens tomorrow, how will my family pay for my funeral?”

His government pension has stopped, and his son’s position as a public servant has been abolished. His disabled wife and daughter are especially vulnerable.
The food he is picking up should last them a couple of weeks but after that, he does not know what they will do. Millions of families share his worries.

Hunger is stalking Afghanistan, caused by a devastating confluence of political and environmental crises. The UN estimates that only 2% of the population are getting enough to eat.

The Taliban victory brought an overnight end to foreign aid that had propped up the economy of the fallen republic for 20 years. In the countryside, where more than two-thirds of Afghans live, the worst drought in 30 years had already left farmers destitute and desperate.

Enough people are now eating so little food, and enough children are malnourished – at least one in three – that Afghanistan is likely meet two of the three criteria the UN uses to declare a famine.

“If they’re not meeting the indicators it’s getting pretty close,” said Mary-Ellen McGroarty, the head of the World Food Programme in Afghanistan, which estimates that 3.2 million children face acute malnutrition and 23 million people are in crisis. “It’s on the brink. There is no province in Afghanistan today with less than 30% of their population either in crisis or emergency food insecurity.”

Across hospitals and feeding centres the number of children needing help is doubling and even tripling. “You see two or three children to a bed, families coming in not only with one child malnourished, but maybe two or three,” she said.

If people start to die in large numbers as a result of food shortages, the situation will escalate into an official famine. Without help, which aid agencies, charities and individuals are racing to get to Afghanistan, that grim scenario is likely to be only a matter of time.

“The images that you are seeing in the nutrition centres and the hospitals are probably only the tip of what is coming behind it, unless we can get out a massive response, which we are working on every day,” McGroarty said. She said the scale of the crisis in Afghanistan was unprecedented in the country’s modern history.

Recognising that, the US and UN eased restrictions last week that had been placed on the Taliban before they came to power. That will allow food and other humanitarian aid to be delivered to the country, including funds to pay teachers’ salaries.

Sanctions imposed for terror attacks the Taliban orchestrated when still insurgents had hamstrung international donors and charities for months. They wanted to support Afghans but worried doing so would break the law at home.

Afghan foreign currency reserves, held in the US, have been frozen since the summer, contributing to cash shortages on the ground. This means even the minority still getting paid or with savings in a bank are struggling to access their money.

The economy overall is thought to have shrunk by at least a third in 2021. Jobs for ordinary people have vanished and the salaries of those still employed have dried up. The Afghani has lost more than 25% of its value and rapid inflation has meant what little money people have has bought them less food.

“Poor people didn’t make the Taliban come or go, but they pay the price,” says Obaidullah Baheer, a university professor before the Taliban took control.

As his country spiralled into economic disaster, and with classes cancelled, he has shifted his focus to fundraising for food aid. The cash gathered has reached several hundred families across Afghanistan, but the extent of desperation sometimes feels overwhelming.

“Often it feels like we are just using a wet towel to try to put out a wildfire,” he said. “You cannot think about the scale and the numbers, because if you do it becomes impossible. You have to do what you can while you can.”

Mehrajuddin, who was collecting food at one of Baheer’s charity drives, is part of an urban middle class that has crumbled in just a couple of months. Social media is filled with photos of journalists reduced to selling their clothes by the side of the road and professors taking up manual work on construction sites.

Baheer has also been campaigning for national reserves to be unfrozen, though he understands concerns about Taliban trying to siphon off cash.

He has already dealt with one provincial governor who tried to commandeer their aid, and a commander who detained a team member for 40 days, but he insists the international community must deal with the authorities to save lives. “This is not about politics, it’s about stopping obscene levels of suffering,” he said. “The Taliban are a reality and they are not going away.”

The crisis is particularly hard on women, because the Taliban have barred them from work in most sectors beyond health and education, and a deeply conservative society already made it hard for them to work outside the home.

Nadera* was one of the last widows created by fighting between the Taliban and the collapsed Republic of Afghanistan. Her husband, a police officer, was killed by a rocket in August when he came to get his wife and six young children from their home because fighting in the area had intensified.

They fled to her brother’s, but his job as a driver was also swept away by the economic collapse, so he has little to share. “My brother gives us two pieces [of Afghan naan bread] for seven people a day, if he can. Mostly we stay hungry.”

Afghan farmers suffering the consequences of drought load food rations on to a truck in Sang-e-Atash.

Even if the Taliban would let her work, she does not know if she could. “There is no one to look after the baby,” she said. The children beg to return to school despite their hunger, but education now seems an impossible dream.

McGroarty says Afghanistan needs about $220m a month to ward off starvation through to next spring, and the money needs to arrive soon.

The Himalayas march across Afghanistan, and in the high altitude areas heavy snowfall cuts off villages for months, so they need food supplies to be sent in now. Even for areas that will not be cut off, sourcing and transporting food for millions of people also takes time.

“We need urgent funding to get us through to May,” McGroarty said. “Hunger is so widespread it’s hard to keep up.”

Even western policymakers with no interest in human suffering should be wary of the global implications if Afghanistan slides into a full-blown famine. Islamic State, a group even more extreme than the Taliban and interested in international jihad, is recruiting there.

The country also remains the main source of the world’s heroin, from the opium grown in its poppy fields. The Taliban have officially promised to eradicate the fields, but farmers are preparing for a bumper spring harvest.

Little of the wealth from the trade goes to the men growing the poppies, but it can at least feed their families. Abdul Manan, in a field just off the main highway between Helmand and Kandahar, was preparing poppies for the smaller winter harvest, slashing the seed buds so the opium sap oozed out.

“We used to eat three meals, but this year we only eat twice a day. Everything has got so expensive,” he said. He got almost nothing for the pomegranates harvested from his orchards, making him even more reliant on opium. Gesturing at his poppies, he said with a shrug: “The price this year is a bit better.”

Courtesy : The Guardian

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