By Carlotta Gall
Friday, September 19, 2008
YAKOWLANG, Afghanistan: A pitiable harvest this year has left small farmers all over central and northern Afghanistan facing hunger, and aid officials are warning of an acute food shortage this winter for nine million Afghans, more than a quarter of the population.
The crisis has been generated by the harshest winter in memory, followed by a drought across much of the country, which come on top of the broader problems of deteriorating security, the accumulated pressure of returning refugees and the effects of rising world food prices.
The failure of the Afghan government and foreign donors to develop the country's main economic sector, agriculture, has compounded the problems, the officials say. They warn that the food crisis could make an already bad security situation worse.
The British charity Oxfam, which conducted a provisional assessment of conditions in the province of Daykondi, one of the most remote areas of central Afghanistan, has appealed for international assistance before winter sets in. "Time is running out to avert a humanitarian crisis," it said.
That assessment is echoed by villagers across the broader region, including in Bamian Province. "In all these 30 years of war, we have not had it as bad as this," said Said Muhammad, a 60-year-old farmer who lives in Yakowlang, in Bamian. "We don't have enough food for the winter. We will have to go to the towns to look for work."
Underlying the warnings are growing fears of civil unrest. The mood in the country is darkening amid increasing economic hardship, worsening disorder and a growing disaffection with the government and its foreign backers, particularly over the issue of government corruption.
Returning refugees are already converging on the cities because they cannot manage in the countryside, and they make easy recruits for the Taliban or other groups that want to create instability, said Ashmat Ghani, an opposition politician and tribal leader from Logar Province, south of Kabul, the nation's capital.
"The lower part of society, when facing hunger, will not wait," he said. "We could have riots."
The Afghan government, together with United Nations organizations, was quick to mount an appeal at the beginning of the year to prevent a food shortage as world food prices soared and neighboring countries stopped wheat exports.
The World Food Program, which was assisting 4.5 million of the most vulnerable Afghans with food aid in recent years, widened its program to include an additional 1.5 million Afghans and extended it further because of the drought to reach a total of nine million people until the end of next year's harvest.
Several weeks ago, Oxfam warned in a letter to ministers responsible for development in some countries assisting Afghanistan that the $404 million appeal by the government and the United Nations was substantially underfinanced.
"If the response is slow or insufficient, there could be serious public health implications, including higher rates of mortality and morbidity, which are already some of the highest in the world," the letter said.
It also warned of internal displacement of families who had no work or food, and even of civil disturbances. "The impact as a whole could further undermine the security situation," Oxfam said.
The United States government announced this week that it would supply nearly half the emergency food aid requested in the appeal.
Susana Rico, the director of the World Food Program in Afghanistan, said last-minute contributions had come in to cover the immediate emergency. But there is still a rush to get supplies to the countryside before the first winter snows arrive next month, she said.
Development officials say that deteriorating security has made it harder to do that job in the countryside. Aid workers have become the targets of an increasing number of attacks from insurgents and criminals.
The dangers have restricted the scale and scope of aid operations, said the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief, an umbrella group of nongovernmental organizations.
Those dangers, the agency says, have even spread to areas previously considered relatively secure. In the first seven months of the year, it reported, 19 workers for nongovernmental organizations were killed, more than the number in all of 2007.
The agency appealed for governments to take a broad range of measures, beyond the military, to combat the escalating insurgency.
"The conflict will not be brought to an end through military means," the agency said in a statement. "A range of measures is required to achieve a sustainable peace, including strong and effective support for rural development."
Neglecting a lifeline as vital as agriculture has been dangerous for stability in Afghanistan, as people are unable to feed themselves, several provincial governors said in interviews.
The governor of Bamian, Habiba Sarabi, has repeatedly complained that because her province has been one of the most law-abiding and trouble-free, it has been forgotten in the big distribution of resources from international donors.
Donors, and in particular the United States government, have spent far larger amounts in the provinces in the south and southeast to help combat the dual problems of the insurgency and narcotics, she said.
Hasan Samadi, 23, the deputy administrator of Yakowlang District in Bamian Province, said, "The economic situation of the people here is very bad and the government is not focused to help.
"They focus on other provinces and unfortunately not on Bamian, and not on remote districts of Bamian," he said.
Daykondi, adjacent to Bamian, is one of the most underfinanced provinces in the country. It receives half the budget of its neighbor to the south, Oruzgan, which has two-thirds the population and a poor record on combating insurgency and the cultivation of the opium poppy, said Matt Waldman, a spokesman for Oxfam in Kabul.
In Daykondi, 90 percent of the population relies on subsistence farming, yet the provincial Department of Agriculture has a budget of only $2,400 for the whole year, he added.
The imbalance in aid to the provinces is being corrected now, Governor Sarabi said, but in the meantime it has put great strain on the people in her province.
She estimated that a quarter of Bamian's population would need food aid this winter because of the drought. There have already been local conflicts over water supplies in two regions, she said.
Development officials warn that neglecting the poorest provinces can add to instability by pushing people to commit crimes or even to join the insurgency, which often pays its recruits.
While the severe drought contributed to the decline of poppy cultivation in the central and northern provinces, it also pushed farmers into debt. If they do not get help now, they could turn back to poppy-growing and lose their faith in the government, said Antonio Maria Costa, executive director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
Costa called for urgent assistance for farmers and regions that have abandoned poppy cultivation. He and others have also criticized the inefficiency of international aid.
Of $15 billion of reconstruction assistance given to Afghanistan since 2001, "a staggering 40 percent has returned to donor countries in corporate profits and consultant salaries," the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief said in a March report.
"Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world," Costa said during a recent visit to Kabul. "I insist on the importance of increasing development assistance, making it more effective. Too much of it is eaten up by various bureaucracies and contractors."
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