Acting to Avert Hunger in Afghanistan

Avalanches and flash floods played havoc on parts of Afghanistan last month, causing the deaths of over 285 villagers in Panjshir province. The snow and floods destroyed hundreds of homes and forced hundreds of families to turn to their neighbors and aid agencies for food, clothing, and shelter to survive. 

Spring in Afghanistan is already one of the most difficult times for the poor and malnourished. Food stocks and resources dwindle over the long winter, and it is still many months before the first harvests. Recently, the World Food Program (WFP) announced a funding shortfall in Afghanistan, threatening its ability to supply food to those most at-risk. The WFP warned that approximately 3 million Afghans are at risk of food and nutrition insecurity from now until July. Fortunately, donors stepped up to meet that funding shortfall. However, hundreds of thousands of displaced Afghans remain incredibly vulnerable.

Humanitarians fear that 500,000 internally displaced Afghans are most at-risk because of insecurity - attacks by armed elements, crossfire when the Afghan army engages with Al Qaeda and other rebel groups, armed bandits - and natural disasters, including avalanches in winter and floods in spring. Without work and shelter, IDPs are generally at more risk of hunger than non-displaced. Additionally, more than 200,000 Pakistani refugees, who were forced to flee Pakistan’s military campaign against the Taliban and Al Qaeda in North Waziristan, crossed the border into neighboring Khost and Paktika provinces. Aid access is very difficult in these areas, and the local Afghan communities are already hard pressed to meet even their own needs.

Afghanistan remains one of the world’s poorest countries with a per capita income of around $664 per year, according to the World Bank. Nonetheless, observers say the county may continue to experience positive economic and job growth. The new government, headed by President Ashraf Ghani, has political legitimacy and seems intent on reducing corruption and improving the rule of law. His government recently arrested the head of the failed Kabul Bank and cancelled corruption-tinted Defense Department contracts, key arguments against prioritizing aid to Afghans in past. The government is also trying to improve relations with its neighbors and find a way to negotiate with the Taliban to bring real peace. 

But in the meantime, hundreds of thousands of ordinary citizens must continue to rely on internationally-funded food assistance, or go hungry this spring.

Conflict and disasters around the world, particularly the Syrian crisis and conflicts in Africa, have made gaining attention and resources for Afghanistan more difficult. WFP’s funding shortfall could affect programs that reach 3.4 million Afghans through its nutrition and food programs, the operation of the humanitarian air service (insecurity and poor roads necessitate air travel for UN and NGO workers), and by helping the country establish a strategic grain reserve to improve emergency preparedness.

Let us hope that the promise and performance of the new Afghan government will encourage the U.S. and other donor countries to provide the funding necessary to provide this lifesaving humanitarian aid. 

Photo: A displaced woman and child in an informal IDP settlement in Kabul, 2011.