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Afghanistan: Famine Averted, But Hunger Crisis Still Looms

  • Alexandra Poolos

Early this month, food aid officials said that an unprecedented international relief effort had succeeded in preventing famine in Afghanistan. But some aid workers are now saying it's too early to declare humanitarian disaster completely averted in the war-torn country. RFE/RL correspondent Alexandra Poolos assesses the complications and successes in current efforts to bring humanitarian aid to Afghanistan.

Prague, 15 January 2001 (RFE/RL) -- In the remote northern mountain region of Abdullah Gan, Afghans are eating grass in a desperate attempt to survive.

The Associated Press reported last week that villagers from Bonavash, a town in the region, are mixing grass with trace amounts of barley flour to make bread. Villagers say that Afghans living farther off in the mountains don't have any flour to mix for bread. Grass is the only thing they have to eat.

Abdullah Gan is one of the most desperate areas in Afghanistan, but it is by no means the only region facing widespread hunger and deprivation. Hundreds of thousands of Afghans live in mountain ranges along the former Taliban-Northern Alliance battle lines, where they have been cut off from food aid and punished by a three-year drought.

And while a major famine in Afghanistan has been averted by the fast distribution of emergency food aid, people throughout the country are still suffering from severe malnutrition.

James Jennings, president of the humanitarian aid organization Conscience International, says the UN's World Food Program (WFP) did a "miraculous" job in moving over 100,000 tons of food into the country in just two months. But Jennings, who traveled to Afghanistan on a fact-finding trip in December, says it's still too early to declare that a humanitarian disaster has been averted in Afghanistan.

"Seventy percent of the people still are malnourished in refugee camps and in the country. And the children are suffering worse. When I was in the hospital in Kabul in December, I saw terrible cases of malnutrition among children. So that's an endemic problem in the population. Just eating bread and water is not enough, although it will sustain life."

Jennings says that while hunger-related deaths may not occur on a massive scale, many Afghans are living a precarious existence confronted by not just malnutrition but poor sanitation, preventable diseases, a difficult environment, and lack of security.

"People are very resilient. If they're young they can probably survive on [the food aid of wheat flour and oil]. The older people and the very young will die. But when you add complicating factors like having to get out and flee from homes in order to find food, and the roads are not good so you end up climbing over a mountain by walking -- a great number of those people will not survive. You have other things, like the warlords roaming the country, and then security in the country. Then, of course, getting water that's uncontaminated and the prevalence of disease. There are many factors that make it a complex emergency and many things that cause deaths. But certainly, the malnutrition -- once they have to face the other problems, it adds to it and it increases the death rate."

Plagued by security problems and transportation difficulties, mountainous populations face the worst of conditions in Afghanistan. Jennings calls it an "out-of-control problem."

"If you drive up to the base of the mountains on a road you often have to get out and get on a donkey or walk over the mountains for several hours and come to the next road on the other side. So in the wintertime, that's hazardous to your health, not to mention the people with guns and bandits roaming the countryside. Nobody underestimates the difficulty [of delivering food aid to these areas]. I think the World Food Program has done a magnificent job by transporting so much wheat in the country during December, but of course they're just catching up for [earlier] months during the war. And having it in the central locations in the city does not solve the problem of reaching the most needy people."

Wagdi Othman, the World Food Program's spokesperson in Islamabad, agrees that major pockets of Afghanistan are still not receiving food aid: "One of the main reasons why we have not been able to go and access the situation in those areas is first the security situation. You have to first remember that the country has just come out of a very, very big conflict. Still there are areas of the country that are no-go areas for humanitarian workers. And also -- because of the fact that now winter has completely set in in Afghanistan and a large and important snowfall is hampering our work -- that is preventing some of our teams [from being able] to assess and to access some villages, especially those that are up in the mountains."

The WFP organizes over 80 percent of Afghanistan's food aid. But the UN agency does not handle distributing all of its aid, which is coordinated on the ground by local NGOs or other international organizations.

Lack of security plagues the movements of these locals, and many are often forced to pay local warlords transit fees. New reports emerged out of Jalalabad this week that warlords there are hijacking the UN wheat shipments and selling them in the city market.

Othman had no confirmation of this report, but he did confirm that security is worsening in Jalalabad and Kandahar: "Insecurity is on the rise in places in Jalalabad and Kandahar and that's very, very worrying for humanitarian organizations like WFP. What we want to see happening is that the central government should try to reaffirm its base in places where there is [little] security so that this kind of bad behavior stops and that food aid and other humanitarian supplies go directly to the needy people."

Othman says despite these problems he's hopeful that the WFP and other humanitarian outfits will soon be able to reach remote areas in the central highlands and northern mountain ranges. He says the WFP's recent acquisition of five helicopters will certainly help.

Othman says the famine crisis in Afghanistan has been narrowly averted, but could become a significant threat again in just three months when WFP funding runs out and the organization campaigns for more global funds. He says the international community must remember that without seed grain, irrigation, or even rainfall Afghans are incapable of growing their own food stocks. To continue feeding Afghans and prevent a widespread famine, Othman says, the country will need a long-term commitment from the international community.