Afghanistan: A worsening food crisis

Abdur Rashid, head of FAO’s Global Information and Early Warning System on Food and Agriculture

Before the recent military action began in Afghanistan, the country was already gripped by a grave food crisis caused by three years of drought and two decades of war and civil strife. Now, with millions of people threatened by starvation, especially in the upcoming winter months, saving lives is the most serious challenge facing the international community. Abdur Rashid, head of FAO’s Global Information and Early Warning System on Food and Agriculture, highlights the plight of the Afghanis and the complex challenges, both short term and long term, that the international community must face in its efforts to help them.

How would you describe the current situation in Afghanistan?

In a word ­ catastrophic. In terms of numbers, there are 7.5 million extremely vulnerable people, 1.5 million of whom are new refugees. However, virtually the entire population of over 23 million is hungry. As we all know, there is a grave humanitarian tragedy in the making. In May, during a mission FAO conducted with the World Food Programme, we already saw signs of impending famine. We estimated that 2.2 million tonnes of cereals would have to be imported into the country this year just to meet basic needs. We assumed that one third of this would be met through commercial imports. But in the current situation, commercial imports of food and agricultural inputs are unlikely. This means that the bulk of the shortfall will need to be met by the international donor community The situation could well become a catastrophe in every sense of the word. Only a massive distribution of food and other relief assistance, particularly to vulnerable groups, will avert the threat of impending mass starvation in the country.

A lot of attention is given to the 1.5 million new refugees in neighbouring countries and the internally displaced people. What about the millions of people who have chosen to stay on their land or in their villages?

The refugees and internally displaced certainly deserve due attention. However, the resident population of around 20 million is also undergoing great hardship. The food the country was able to produce this year was barely enough for half the year in aggregate. Without huge amounts of international food assistance, the resident population, like the refugees and internally displaced, risk starvation.

The immediate concern is about saving lives, but it is also about saving this year’s crops. This is a critical time for wheat planting, which accounts for 80 percent of Afghanistan’s cereal production. If the wheat crop is not in the field by next month, the main crop for next year will be missing and the food supply situation will be even graver. We also anticipate a probable seed shortage, because when there is a food shortage, people eat their reserves of seeds. People are on the move, fields are not being tended and inputs such as fertilizer and fuel imported from neighbouring countries are not forthcoming because of the current situation. All the signs point to major problems next year.

How has the situation affected FAO’s activities in the country?

Over the last three years, FAO has been conducting missions with the World Food Programme to assess how the country’s crop production and food supply have been affected by prolonged drought. FAO is also involved in a great deal of rehabilitation work, especially in the crop and livestock sectors. And there is a joint food-for-seed programme that we carry out with WFP, which has been working very satisfactorily. Unfortunately, the current situation is not conducive to normal conduct of such activities. The FAO international project staff based in Islamabad, Pakistan, cannot enter the country. The remaining 36 national professional staff have to handle everything in the country. They are extremely dedicated. But the international complement is also needed.

The World Food Programme is making major efforts to transport large volumes of food to the country. However, in the absence of international staff, it is difficult to adequately monitor the distribution of food. But when virtually the entire population is hungry, in one sense food is by definition going to the ‘right’ people.

What role does FAO’s Global Information and Early Warning System play in this crisis?

GIEWS was set up in 1975 in the wake of the world food crisis of the early 1970s. It was established to continuously monitor the global food supply and demand in order to provide timely warning of impending food supply problems facing individual countries. We normally conduct about 35 missions each year, jointly with WFP, to countries affected by natural or man-made disasters to assess the impact of such disasters on food supply and to estimate food import requirements, including food aid needs of the affected population. We use information from the field and many other sources as well as high-resolution satellite images to pinpoint areas of low rainfall and drought and to study crop conditions and evolving food supply situations.

Over the past three years we had intensified our monitoring activities in Afghanistan because of the drought. One significant event we observed in this year’s FAO/WFP mission to the country was the elimination of poppy production, which was also confirmed by a multi-donor mission. While this is certainly a very positive move ­ it has rid the world of 3,000 to 4,000 tonnes of opium and its derivatives -- it has hurt the economy enormously because it has left so many people unemployed. About 480,000 families were depending on poppy production for their livelihoods, which translates into about 3 million people. Unless farmers and others depending on poppy production receive adequate assistance, they may once again resort to its cultivation.

As of early October, we are studying the satellite images every 10 days to see how the vegetation is developing compared to previous years. We will supplement this monitoring with field verification as soon as possible. One thing is certain: conflicts such as this one do not provide an environment that is conducive for farming. Agriculture production will certainly decline in the country.

Unfortunately, this crisis comes at a time when the food supplies are tightening in neighbouring countries as well. The three-year drought has reduced food production in all of these countries, seriously constraining their ability to assist Afghanistan’s residents and the refugees who have fled across the borders.

What happens once the military action subsides?

We need to address the rehabilitation of the agriculture sector and the recovery of the economy. Past war and persistent civil conflicts have devastated Afghanistan’s agriculture and infrastructure. The irrigation systems are in ruins, and agricultural services are virtually nonexistent. Thousands of hectares of prime agricultural land have been taken out of production because of a lack of irrigation facilities and the presence of millions of land mines in the country. It is estimated that rehabilitation of the agriculture sector countrywide will require US$200 million. This is a daunting task and will pose an enormous challenge after the resolution of the conflict.

Right now, we are carefully and continually monitoring the situation, which is very dynamic and requires a highly flexible approach. In the short term, we must concentrate on saving lives and next year’s wheat crops, which must be planted now. After these immediate concerns, the international community must address the repatriation of refugees and internally displaced people. Then will come the medium- to long-term phase -- rehabilitation of agriculture and economic recovery. We are already planning responses to a variety of post-conflict scenarios. With 80 percent of the population relying on agriculture, FAO will certainly be at the forefront of the rehabilitation efforts.

31 October 2001

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©FAO, 2001