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IRIN News, July 5, 2007

Over six million Afghans face food insecurity

Food insecurity has been considered a chronic problem in Afghanistan affecting the lives of millions of Afghans for decades

KABUL - Three out of 10 Afghans suffer from chronic food insecurity, which badly affects the health and well-being of the estimated 27-million nation, said the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

According to FAO, 6.5 million people face food insecurity in Afghanistan in 2007.

"Food insecurity means that people do not have access at all times to the quality and quantity of food they require to lead a healthy life," said Charlotte Dufour, an adviser to FAO, on 4 July.

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Fifty-seven percent of Afghan households have insufficient food diversity (indicating poor quality) and over 20 percent of households do not have access to enough food, according to a national rural vulnerability assessment conducted jointly by the Afghan government and the UN in 2003.

FAO says some far-flung provinces such as Bamyan, Daykundi and Ghor face a "critical situation" and require long-term development projects to reduce household vulnerability to food crises.

Some provinces are particularly food insecure because of factors such as high altitude and long winters, lack of water, or remoteness and difficulties of access. Heavy snowfalls and avalanches during winter months regularly block roads to and from rugged and mountainous provinces such as Ghor, Daykundi, Bamyan and Badakhshan.

Food aid - last resort

However, experts say food aid should only be used as a last resort when local or regional food availability is limited.

"Food aid can have negative impacts such as creating dependency on external assistance," warned Dufour.

Afghanistan's Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock (MAIL) has raised hopes that 2007 will mark at least a seven percent increase in the country's overall agricultural production, due to desirable rainfall in the drought-stricken country.

In 2007, Afghanistan is expected to produce 5,584 metric tonnes (mt) of cereals, including wheat, rice, maize and barley, but the country will still require 526mt to be imported, indicated a MAIL report released on 4 July.

No mass starvation

In 2006 certain areas of Afghanistan faced a food crisis when demand for food surpassed supply inside the country, FAO reported.

The annual UN report on illegal drugs has said that opium production in Afghanistan is soaring out of control. The World Drug Report says over 90 percent of illegal opium, which is used to make heroin, comes from Afghanistan.
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Floods and torrential rainfall, according to Afghan officials, have caused extensive damage to agriculture and livestock across Afghanistan.

"The floods have caused destruction on a local basis which will not have big implications for the whole country," Dufour said. Afghans are unlikely to face mass starvation.

While hundreds of thousands of Afghan children (or more than half of Afghan children under five) do not take adequate nutrition and other recommended edibles on a daily basis, acute malnutrition (severe weight loss) affects an estimated 5 to 10 percent of children under five, according to the government and UN.

Dufour, who also worked in Afghanistan during Taliban rule in 2000, said acute malnutrition affected mostly children under two, and was often caused by diarrhoea and other hygienic problems.

"Early stopping of breastfeeding, or failure to give young children adequate food after six months, are also major causes of acute malnutrition," he said.

Afghan children will, however, experience the implications of inadequate food security and nutrition in terms of their mental and physical growth, warn experts.

Nearly self-sufficient in cereals

Food insecurity has been considered a chronic problem in Afghanistan affecting the lives of millions of Afghans for decades, government officials say.

Feeding a majority of its population through an underdeveloped agriculture Afghanistan is, in a good year, 90 percent self-sufficient in cereal production, according to MAIL, but it has a long way to go to properly feed its growing population, aid officials say.

Afghanistan needs to preserve its natural resources (including forests, rangelands, wildlife and plants), improve water and irrigation management, diversify agricultural production, expand its fruit and vegetable production, improve livestock production and help households diversify their sources of income in order to overcome the challenges millions of its citizens face now, FAO said.

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