AP, May 23, 2002

Famine Hits Drought-Ridden Afghanistan

By JUSTIN POPE, Associated Press Writer

MEDFORD, Mass. (AP) - Drought and a lack of adequate food have led to an economic and social disaster in Afghanistan where some girls as young as 7 are sold into marriage so their families can afford to eat, according to a report by a famine expert.

The study provides the most detailed snapshot to date of conditions in the war-torn nation. It concluded that the number of Afghan households with a secure source of food and water has plummeted.

The report also shows widespread indebtedness, often a source of shame in Islamic cultures, and it says the practice of selling daughters into marriage was common in every province surveyed.

"It was very routine, up to the point where we had families who didn't have a young girl to put into marriage were lamenting it," said Tufts University famine expert Sue Lautze, who based the report on interviews in 1,100 households throughout Afghanistan.

The report was commissioned by the U.S. Agency for International Development to guide relief efforts. USAID director Andrew Natsios said in January that food aid had averted widespread famine in the country of 27 million people, but Lautze's report painted a grim picture of worsening hardship in villages.

"We went into this thinking maybe this country was going into a reconstruction phase, when in fact it's still in acute disaster phase," Lautze said in an interview this week.

The report has not yet been released, but a preliminary draft outlines its conclusions and recommendations.

"This is the most comprehensive look we've had at the village level food security situation," said Joel Charny, vice president for policy at Refugees International, a Washington group involved in Afghanistan famine issues. "I hope it will serve as a wake-up call."

Letitia Butler, deputy director of USAID's task force for Central Asia, said the report pointed out the need to focus on injecting cash into the economy to combat the decline in purchasing power, and on agricultural assistance that could help during a drought.

Earlier this month, the World Food Program said it needs more than $585 million to feed 9 million people in Afghanistan. The agency said it had received less than 60 percent of that.

The United States has spent $230 million on assistance to Afghanistan, $190 million through USAID, according to the agency's Web site.

Lautze's report urges USAID, one of numerous government and private organizations working in Afghanistan, to prepare for at least another year of emergency assistance, concentrating on building water systems, clearing mines and replenishing livestock herds that have been "decimated" by the drought.

"They were coping with the war, they were coping with the Taliban," Lautze said of Afghan villagers. "But this drought has really been hard."

Lautze's teams found that the level of diet security, a measure of vulnerability to famine, has fallen from 59 percent in 1999-2000 to 9 percent now. Water security fell from 43 percent to 15 percent.

The report does not attempt to calculate how many people have died of hunger. But it argues that the drought, entering its fourth year, is wreaking havoc on village economic and social life.

Many of the people surveyed are being forced into heavy debts and selling precious assets like livestock and even their daughters.

Lautze, a former USAID worker, has briefed the State Department, Defense Department, National Security Council and United Nations on her findings.

Despite the grim picture of life in Afghanistan, Lautze said the World Food Program has delivered 380,000 tons of food there, and about 60 percent of households reported they had received food assistance in the last year, more than triple the previous year.

"The fact that they got food aid into 60 percent of the households in the middle of a war these are not small accomplishments," Lautze said.

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