Hunger threatens millions of poor Afghans

UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA)
June 9, 2000

Islamabad (Office of the United Nations Co-ordinator for Afghanistan), 9 June 2000 - Millions of Afghans face a serious food crisis due to a severe drought that destroyed almost all the rain-fed crops in the country, the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) and the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) said.

Without additional food aid, the situation is expected to worsen in the coming months, according to a joint report released this week by the two organisations.

"This report is the most alarming I have been involved with," said WFP Afghanistan Country Director Mike Sackett.

Afghanistan will need to import some 2.3 million tons of cereals this year, more than double the record amount the country needed last year. Total production for 2000/2001 is estimated to be in the area of 1.8 million tonnes, against a national need of just over four million tonnes, the report said. Afghanistan may be able to commercially import one million tons, while WFP is trying to mobilise 225,000 tonnes of food aid, which is almost three times the quantity distributed in 1999. However, this leaves a huge cereal gap of over one million tonnes. A deficit of this magnitude, if unmet, will inevitably result in widespread serious nutritional consequences and loss of life, the report said.

The report, a result of a joint FAO/WFP mission that visited 17 Afghan provinces in different regions of the country, said that rain-fed wheat and barley had almost totally failed, except in a few places. The irrigated cereal crops are down by 33%. The mission attributed production problems to a 70-90% decline in precipitation this year.

In Afghanistan, rains normally start in October/November. Even if precipitation improves in the next season, wheat harvests will not be available until May/June 2001. If rains fail again, the situation, already of catastrophic dimensions, will worsen further, and will likely make for a widespread famine unless adequate preventive steps are taken in time, the report warned.

Millions of Afghans have little or no access to food through commercial markets, just as their access to food through self-production has been severely undermined by drought. The purchasing power of most Afghans has been seriously eroded by the absence of employment. About 85 percent of Afghanistan's estimated 21.9 million people are directly dependent on agriculture.

Urgent assistance is also needed to provide seed for the upcoming season and feed for livestock. The agricultural infrastructure has been severely damaged due to war and irrigation facilities are in urgent need of rehabilitation requiring additional assistance, the report said.

Out-migration of entire families has not yet been widely reported. It is reasonable to expect, however, that under the devastating conditions faced by households in some of the hardest hit areas many may have little choice this year but to move as a matter of survival. WFP Afghanistan has a significant role to play in preventing large-scale migration this year to already over-taxed urban areas or to neighbouring Pakistan and Iran, Sackett said.

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