Half of Afghanistan’s population does not have enough food to get through the winter, the UN has warned, with children already starving to death as women sell their offspring just to make ends meet.
The World Food Programme says 23million Afghans risk acute malnutrition and death in the coming months with a million children at risk of dying ‘without immediate treatment’.
Millions of dollars will be needed over the coming months to avert a worst-case scenario, the WFP said, but cash is being withheld by governments who are fearful that donations will be plundered by the Taliban.
The warning comes just a day after eight orphans were reported to have starved to death in Kabul, and a week after mothers in the city of Herat revealed they are selling their children to pay off loans they took out to buy food.
‘Hunger is rising and children are dying.’ WFP director David Beasley said. ‘We are on a countdown to catastrophe and if we don’t act now, we will have a total disaster on our hands.’
Afghanistan – an impoverished country devastated by decades of conflict and rampant corruption – was dependent on overseas aid for some 40 per cent of its GDP even whilst it was ruled by a government propped up by the West.
But the Covid pandemic, drought, and the near-overnight collapse of its government and subsequent Taliban take-over has dramatically worsened the situation, with the country now on the verge of economic meltdown.
The value of its currency has plunged even as food prices have soared while aid has stopped – with workers going unpaid, businesses shut and families forced to flog off everything they own just to survive.
Underlining the severity of the situation, eight children were reported to have starved to death in the capital of Kabul this week.
Mohammad Ali Bamiyani, preacher of a nearby mosque, told journalists that the siblings had been orphaned in recent months after their father died of cancer and mother perished of a heart condition.
Speaking of the moment he entered the family’s home, he said: ‘All eight children were dead. It was clear that they had starved.
‘The children were so hungry that they could not even stretch their legs.’
Meanwhile a woman who gave her name only as Saleha said she is facing the prospect of giving one of her children to a loanshark she borrowed money from in a desperate attempt to keep her family fed.
Saleha, 40, borrowed the money after fighting forced her and her much-older husband off farmland they had cultivated in Badghis province which they hoped to pay back after finding work elsewhere.
Now in the city of Herat, she makes just 70 cents per day cleaning houses and has no hope of repaying the $550 loan. Last month, the loan shark offered to write off the debt if she hands over her three-year-old daughter Najiba.
‘If life continues to be this awful, I will kill my children and myself,’ Saleha told the Wall Street Journal. ‘I don’t even know what we will eat tonight.’
Meanwhile a Save the Children report warned that families are ‘selling what little they have to buy food, sending their children to work or getting by on bread alone.’
According to Mr Beasley, Afghanistan is now ‘among the world’s worst humanitarian crises – if not the worst.
The WFP warns that levels of poverty which were once limited to Afghanistan’s rural regions are now hitting big cities, all of which face food shortages this winter.
‘Rampant unemployment and the liquidity crisis mean that all major urban centres are projected to face… food insecurity, including formerly middle-class populations,’ today’s report says.
Meanwhile the country’s harsh winter is threatening to ‘cut off’ rural areas where 7.3million people are dependent on food aid after farms were hit by drought.
The WFP is now urgently appealing for funds, warning some $220million-per-month may be needed to keep everyone fed.
Another $211million will be needed to help rural areas hit by drought, it said.
World leaders have pledged some $1billion in aid for Afghanistan but are struggling to work out how to get it into the country without it being pilfered by the Taliban.
Alex Zerden, a former Treasury Department official and fellow at the Center for a New American Security, warned CNBC last month that the potential for corruption within Taliban ranks is ‘huge’.
A quarter of Afghanistan’s banks are state-owned, he said, along with the national bank which would typically be used to move large volumes of cash around.
‘The Taliban control customs, they control taxation. They were in the extortion business a month ago [and] I don’t think they’re going to change,’ he said.
Countries may be tempted to give the money direct to aid agencies, but they are unlikely to be set up to receive such large sums, Zerden added.
Andreas Krieg, an associate professor at King’s College London, warned that humanitarian funds will inevitably ‘get into the wrong hands’ in developing nations run by regimes such as the Taliban.
But he said that should not be used to justify cutting the regime off entirely, because ‘that will undermine any effort to reign the Taliban in and moderate them.’
World leaders did raise some $1billion in UN funding for aid efforts in Afghanistan last month, but must now work out how to get it into the country while bypassing the new government.
The World Food Programme has sought to reassure donors, saying there are ‘robust monitoring systems in place’ to make sure aid does not fall into the wrong hands.
‘We conduct routine monitoring activities to ensure accountability and improve the quality of our programmes,’ a statement added.
Earlier this month, the Taliban insisted that the US has committed to handing over humanitarian aid after a meeting with senior officials.
But an American statement put out after the same meeting was more ambiguous, saying only that the two sides ‘discussed the United States’ provision of robust humanitarian assistance, directly to the Afghan people.’
Congress has been debating how to help the Afghan population since the government collapsed in August, in a way which does not prop up the Taliban.
Republican aides said at the time that any funding would be conditional on all US citizens and contractors being allowed to safely leave the country, and on strict oversight of where money is going and how it is being used.Internet Explorer Channel Network