- Alex Butler
Food Scarcity Among Afghanistan's Urban Class
By Alex Butler
As winter sets in, the people of Afghanistan are struggling to survive. An ongoing, multi-year drought combined with an economic crash following the Taliban takeover in August has left millions hungry and cold. The drought, the worst the country has seen in 30 years, has already left crops and pastures withered in rural areas, sapping the livelihoods of many, reported by NPR.
Exacerbating these conditions is the collapse of public services and the widespread hunger that a majority of Afghans are grappling with. Several agencies have reported worrisome statistics. AP News reports that the UN has recorded that 8.7 million Afghans are on the brink of starvation. Afghanistan Times has stated that 23 million people face acute hunger. And Shelley Thakral, the World Food Program (WFP) spokesperson for Afghanistan, has said that more than half the population is facing extreme levels of hunger.
"The hunger within the country is cutting across all socio-economic divides, and families of all education levels have been badly impacted"
These numbers are primarily caused by the price of food increasing following the banking system being paralyzed by sanctions. As a result, the price of essential goods like flour and gas has skyrocketed while the value of the Afghani currency has plummeted, per ABC News.
According to the WFP, 98% of the Afghan population lacks enough food to eat. Feeding children just one meal a day has become the norm in many families. Many Afghans are surviving on limited diets with little to no fresh vegetables, dairy, or meat. It has become uncommon for the average household to have access to meat and dairy at least once a month, and the consumption of pulses and fruit has dropped to less than once a week.
As a result, malnutrition has become a severe problem among the population. According to ABC News, about one in two children in Afghanistan under five are at risk from acute malnutrition. Unemployment and lack of money have been cited as the reason for malnutrition for many families.
Faced with extreme hunger and cold, millions of Afghans have been forced to use desperate coping mechanisms. According to the World Food Program, more than half of the population, 55%, are resorting to drastic measures to feed their families. Almost all families have attributed this to a lack of money.
Electricity blackouts throughout the country have made the cold worse, and many people do not have money to buy wood or fuel, reports Khaama Press. As Thakral said in an interview with NPR, "If you don't have money to buy food, you certainly don't have money to buy fuel or firewood to keep warm."
Discussing the urgency of the situation, the UN chief, António Guterres, has said that "More than 80% of the population relies on contaminated drinking water, and some families are selling their babies to purchase food." Selling household items, cutlery, furniture, clothing, and children into early marriages have also occurred in desperate families.
While Afghanistan has experienced other hunger emergencies in the past, for the first time there is a new urban class of hungry people. The hunger within the country is cutting across all socio-economic divides, and families of all education levels have been badly impacted. An unprecedented 96 percent of families with a post-secondary educated household head don't have enough to eat. Afghans who have lost their jobs following the Taliban takeover are for the first time scrounging and standing in line for food.
Following the Taliban takeover last August, Afghanistan's aid-dependent economy took a hit as the international community froze Afghanistan's assets abroad and halted economic support in a stance against the Taliban. These economic measures have prevented aid agencies from moving funds into and within the country, consequently blocking millions from receiving emergency relief.
Several international actors have called for measures to help the Afghan people. Deputy Russian Ambassador Dmitry Polyansky has stressed that unless action is taken to unfreeze Afghanistan's action quickly, "Afghanistan has no long-term prospects to make it out of this crisis."
He has asked Western donors to get money back in the country, saying that aid should not be used as a bargaining chip or a tool to punish Afghans for what has happened in their country, a sentiment echoed by China's UN ambassador, Zhang Jun. Polyansky has also warned that if Afghanistan entirely falls into economic collapse, it will increase the number of refugees and spread terrorist activity, drug production, and instability within the region and beyond.
Guterres has urged nations to boost humanitarian aid and to release nearly $9 billion in frozen assets to prevent Afghanistan's economy from collapsing. The WFP is boosting its distribution of food rations such as wheat, flour, oil, salt, and pulses but needs $2.6 billion to keep Afghans fed in the year ahead.
More than half a million people have lost their jobs since the takeover. The UN's International Labour Organization warns that those numbers are expected to rise to as high as 900,000, mainly due to restrictions on women in the workplace.
A report published by the Norwegian Refugee Council has shown that it will be impossible to reach the millions who need assistance within the country unless the US Treasury and other donor agencies take immediate action to allow banks to facilitate humanitarian financial transfers and to assist the Afghan central bank as it resumes its essential functions.
Unfortunately, the UN envoy has said that donors are still not satisfied with the political progress of the Taliban, as they have still failed to include greater ethnic diversity in the government and to include girls in higher education and women in the workforce. For their part, the Taliban have acknowledged that the country is suffering from economic problems but have denied that there is a food crisis, dismissing such claims as foreign propaganda.
It's clear that the international community must take action fast if the people of Afghanistan are to be spared the worst of the winter. Yet as the Taliban refuse to meet their original promises of inclusivity, many donors remain resistant to providing aid to those who desperately need it. Unless this stalemate is resolved, millions of Afghans will continue to suffer, and the fallout could further destabilize Afghanistan and the region as a whole.