The drought and a shortage of funds has fuelled an economic crisis – more than 70 percent of Afghanistan’s population live in rural areas and around 80 percent of livelihoods depend on agriculture which is the mainstay of the country’s economy.
By Fereshta Abbasi
“Children in the provinces – they are only skin on bones now – and I’m afraid this is only going to get worse,” the director of an international humanitarian organization in Afghanistan told me.
According to a health ministry official, approximately one in 10 new-born Afghan babies born since January 2022 have died – over 13,000 total – an increase believed to be exacerbated by worsening malnutrition, hunger-related diseases, and the collapse of the country’s healthcare sector. 95 per cent of the population does not have enough to eat and 3.5 million children need nutritional support.
“Half of those we admit for critical care are also malnourished,” a doctor with Médecins Sans Frontières reported. Almost 800 children in one hospital in Helmand province are there because of acute malnutrition.
Difficult to access funds
While many countries have pledged humanitarian aid, Afghanistan also urgently needs a functioning banking system to address the crisis. Most Afghan banks are barely operating now. In recent weeks, the United States and World Bank have unlocked billions of dollars in assistance, but restrictions on Afghanistan’s Central Bank are still making large transactions or withdrawals impossible.
Aid groups delivering humanitarian assistance say they are unable to move funds into Afghanistan because international banks remain wary of pre-existing sanctions on the Taliban, and Afghan banks limit cash withdrawals due to currency shortages. Aid groups say that payments to Afghanistan are routinely blocked by banks wary of running afoul of sanctions.
Instead, most groups use the informal hawala system to transfer funds, even though the service charges can range from 4 to 8 percent in cities or as much as 13 percent in remote areas. Before the Taliban takeover in August 2021, rates were at about two per cent.
Donors have been understandably worried that efforts to restore Afghanistan’s Central Bank would bolster the Taliban’s rule. Since taking power, Taliban authorities have arbitrarily arrested activists and journalists, executed former government officials, and engaged in widespread violations of women’s and girls’ rights.
But Afghans need all their rights protected, including the right to food. While humanitarian assistance programs can help mitigate the economic crisis, they are far from sufficient. The Taliban also need to address the crisis, including by letting women work, and donors should monitor bank transactions to ensure funds are being used for legitimate humanitarian and commercial purposes.
Without that, it will be impossible to ease the crisis and help Afghanistan’s most vulnerable children.
Hunger staring in the face
In the meanwhile, the International Federation of Red Cross (IFRC) has voived fears for millions of Afghans and farming communities as fields remain bare of the annual spring crops.
The ongoing drought means that the area planted with winter wheat is well below average. Field reports indicate that half the ground normally sown with wheat was fallow at the end of the planting window in December.
The United Nations too says that hunger is worsening in Afghanistan, with 95 per cent of the population going without enough food to eat every day.
The few crops which were planted are likely to face harsh conditions, with La Nina expected to bring drier than normal conditions in the coming months, extending the severe drought into a second year.
Mawlawi Mutiul Haq Khales, who heads of the Afghan Red Crescent Society Acting President, feels helpless. He says, “Millions of families rely on farming, but they already lost last year’s crops to the severe drought, leaving them without grain to get through the harsh winter or seeds to sow in the fields.”
“Without seeds in the ground, there will be no harvest in spring and summer, creating a real risk of famine across Afghanistan, where nearly 23 million people are already unable to feed themselves every day,” Mawlawi adds.
The drought crisis has fuelled an economic crisis in a country where agriculture is critical for people’s livelihoods and the mainstay of the economy. More than 70 percent of Afghanistan’s population live in rural areas and around 80 percent of livelihoods depend on agriculture, according to the latest IPC Afghanistan food security data.
Fereshta Abbasi is a researcher with Human Rights Watch. The additional reporting has been sourced from IFRC