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Afghanistan: UN Food Agency Races To Prevent Humanitarian Crisis

WFP food rations being distributed in mid-2007 in Helmand Province (AFP) A crippling food shortage in Afghanistan exacerbated by a harsh winter and an astronomical rise in the price of wheat has led the UN's World Food Program (WFP) to begin distributing emergency food aid.

The UN food agency has begun providing emergency wheat deliveries to millions of Afghans in an attempt to prevent a humanitarian crisis. It plans to distribute aid packages this week containing wheat, beans, and cooking oil to some 650,000 people in and around Kabul, with aid shipments to remote areas to follow.

"We say that among these 6 million that we have estimated, 3.5 million are regularly in need of our food, and almost 3 million people are seasonally in need of our food," WFP spokesman Ebadullah Ebad tells RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan. "We are concerned about those people who are living in remote areas. We are concerned about the shortage of food and getting food to them in that rugged terrain. If we don't get that food there on time to those people in remote areas, we think that there will be a [humanitarian] crisis."

Ebad says recent price increases for wheat on the global market has meant that ordinary Afghans have seen wheat prices rise by 70 percent during the past year -- making it difficult for impoverished Afghans to purchase the food staple.

"The price of wheat last year per kilogram was 15 afghanis," Ebad says. "This year, one kilogram of wheat is about 27 to 28 afghanis -- which is almost 50 cents. This shows that people who have a very low income are vulnerable."

Indeed, three months ago, the UN appealed for donor countries to send $77 million in additional funds to help Afghans affected by the global surge in the price of wheat.

Ebad says the food is needed in both urban and rural areas of Afghanistan during the next three months: "We had asked for pledges to help about 2.5 million people who are vulnerable because of the increase of food prices in Afghanistan. We have asked the donor countries to help us with $77 million so we can buy about 89,000 metric tons of wheat."

So far, Ebad says, donor countries have responded by sending an additional $40 million in aid. Ebad adds that the remaining $37 million has been promised by donor countries but has not yet been sent, and stresses that it takes at least four months before contributions can make their way into the country, through warehouses, and to the people.

Ebad adds that violence and lawlessness in some parts of Afghanistan continue to hamper efforts to deliver aid to needy Afghans, in addition to adverse weather and rising costs.

"It's a mixture of man-made disasters and also natural disasters," Ebadi says. "The most vulnerable people are living in remote areas -- for example Badakhshan, Dai Kundi, Bamiyan, or Faryab. Those are the provinces mostly affected by natural disasters. Sometimes there are man-made disasters -- like in Helmand, one of the provinces where the conflict [continues] between the Taliban and coalition forces. And also, there are armed people on the way to Herat -- especially in Farah Province in the desert. They are attacking our convoys."

Rick Corsino, the World Food Program's Afghanistan director, says food distribution should be completed before the main midyear wheat harvest. Corsino says it is important that the additional food aid shipments do not discourage Afghan farmers from growing wheat for the domestic market.

RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Freshta Jalalzai contributed to this report from Prague