20 Sep, 2021

A growing food and humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan

by Ilaria Mereni

Over the last few years, the large-scale displacement driven by conflict, as well as the impact of extreme and ever-changing climate and the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic have worsened the humanitarian, nutritional and living conditions of the population of Afghanistan. According to the World Food Programme (WFP) 14 million people in the country – over a third of the population – face critical levels of hunger and malnutrition, including about 2 million children dependent on nutrition services to survive. The recent takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban, culminating with the storming of Kabul on August 15, looks set to worsen this alarming situation, further causing an increase in the need of humanitarian aid and support.

The fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban will likely cause a reinvigorated displacement crisis and worsen the living conditions in the country’s refugee camps. Even before the Taliban takeover, Afghans already constituted one of the largest refugee populations worldwide. In particular, almost 6 million Afghans have been forced to leave their homes in recent years, including 3 million internally displaced people (IDPs). Today, as a consequence of recent events, the number of displaced people is significantly rising and more and more Afghans are expected to flee in the future due to escalating violence and political uncertainty. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), already more than 550.000 people were newly displaced this year inside the country and, in July alone, the number of IDPs nearly doubled compared with the month before. In this context, the living conditions in the overcrowded displacement camps and informal settlements are dire and refugees face incredible daily hardships to meet their basic needs. Food supplies are grossly insufficient and the micronutrient quality and caloric intake of food rations are below minimum standards. In fact, the WFP reported that almost 60 percent of displaced Afghans have inadequate food consumption and face the risk of starvation, and this percentage is expected to increase as a consequence of the growing number of displaced people in the country.

Recurrent weather extremes threatening the country, such as floods and droughts, are clear contributors to the overall deterioration of food security and availability. In June Afghanistan officially fell into the second devastating drought in three years, which resulted in the loss of almost 40 percent of crops. As reported by the World Food Programme (WFP), livestock sizes decreased by 14 percent and livestock productivity fell by 48 percent. Moreover, recurrent floods and heavy rains caused the loss of shelters, crops and productive assets, thus threatening the livelihood of the population.

The Covid-19 pandemic have also had far-reaching health impacts and important socio-economic repercussions, which resulted in an increase in prices and poverty. In Afghanistan food and fuel prices have been rising since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, leaving many
families unable to afford basic items. It is reported that the cost of wheat, rice, sugar and cooking oil has increased by more than 50 percent, compared with pre-pandemic prices, and this situation has
meant that many people are no longer able to afford essential goods. In fact, the Covid-19 pandemic has decimated the already-fragile economy, leaving more and more people at risk of relying exclusively on humanitarian aids to survive. In this regard, statistics show that before the Covid-19 pandemic 54.5 percent of the country lived below the poverty line, while after the pandemic this estimate reached up to 72 percent.

This spike in prices is expected to rise further as a consequence of the escalation of the internal conflict. Save the Children reported that prices have hiked up to 63% over the past month on goods such as flour, oil, beans and gas because of border closures and disruptions to imports, which is affecting the availability of basic goods. Furthermore, people’s ability to buy food is likely to be further limited by the lack of operating banks and ATMs, which prevents them from accessing their savings.

For all these reasons, the Afghan population needs humanitarian support now more than ever. Even before the latest events more than half the population, 18 million people, according to statistics, already depended on humanitarian assistance and aid to survive. These needs are increasing daily as a consequence of escalating conflict, as access to basic health, nutrition, water, hygiene and lifesaving treatments and services is more and more limited. On top of that, deliveries of first aid supplies, including surgical equipment and malnutrition kits have been held up due to the closure of Kabul airport to commercial flights by the Taliban. In this regard, the UN has warned that core food supplies, including wheat flour to make bread, will run out in Afghanistan by October without further aid funding.

NGOs, which have always provided important aid and resources to the Afghan population, are really concerned about the prevailing humanitarian needs within Afghanistan, and urge support to ensure that all those requiring assistance are not forgotten. The WFP reported to need US$200 million by the end of the year to continue its operations in Afghanistan. Similarly, UNICEF recently launched a $192 million appeal to address the escalating humanitarian crisis and step up support. In fact, despite security and logistic challenges, all these agencies are trying to do their best in order to serve the country and face this deteriorating humanitarian situation, as long as they have access to people in need.

While humanitarian organizations are committed to remaining in Afghanistan and continuing to deliver aid, it is vital that world leaders do the same, as well as fill the wide gap in humanitarian funding. First of all, high income countries and regions such as the U.S. or the European Union should facilitate safe passage from Afghanistan of civilians at risk, which includes minimizing recourse to dangerous irregular journeys by expanding safe and legal migration channels and facilitating the asylum processes and protection for those who arrive. In this regard, several states have created evacuation programmes to protect at-risk Afghans and facilitate the access to their territory. German’s Interior Minister, for example, has said that Afghans will have
access to a three-year residency permit without having to apply for  asylum. 

These evacuation programmes have undoubtedly saved tens of thousands of lives, and these efforts are praiseworthy, but they should not, however, replace an urgent international humanitarian response. In fact, as people across the world welcome Afghans into their communities and homes, hundreds of thousands of vulnerable Afghans and their families remain in need of lifesaving aid and protection inside Afghanistan. For this reason, much more funds are also needed in order to ensure organizations’ teams can continue to deliver lifesaving aid in conflict areas, as well as provide emergency and protection services for internally displaced people. These are important actions that the international community should implement as soon as possible to face the increasing needs of the Afghan people, either in Afghanistan or as vulnerable refugees outside the country, so as to ensure them security, stability and a brighter future.