Afghanistan Is Starving to Death

The double threat of the Taliban and climate change is turning Afghanistan into the world’s largest humanitarian crisis.

Nov 26 2021, 7:06am

Ahmad was in Kabul when the Taliban took over the capital. He had hoped to leave the country, but over three months later, he remains in Afghanistan where the situation has become even more dire. He and his family have since left the capital.

“I couldn’t afford food and shelter there in Kabul,” he told VICE World News.

Ahmad, whose name has been changed for his protection, was previously employed with a high-paying job before the government fell. Now, he is jobless and worries about the safety and welfare of his wife and young son. But he says his situation is not unique.

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“I have seen many people suffering. Children are at high risk. I am facing many women with their malnourished children in the city roads. Actually many families are getting hungry day by day,” he said.

It’s been 103 days since the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan, and the country is on the brink of collapse. More than 57 percent of the national population is experiencing acute hunger, 22 percent are in a state of emergency, and with a harsh winter fast approaching, a growing number of young children, elderly citizens and breastfeeding mothers – in both rural and urban areas across the country – are at dire risk of malnutrition and starvation.

According to experts, the situation is set to become the world’s largest humanitarian crisis.

“With climate, with conflict, with the current situation where people are now facing an economic crisis – all of this affects food security, and all of this affects people’s health and wellbeing,” Shelley Thakral, a spokesperson for the World Food Programme (WFP), told VICE World News over the phone from Afghanistan. “It’s very concerning, when you’ve got at least 23 million people facing food insecurity, and in addition to that 3.2 million children who are facing severe malnutrition. That’s children who are very underweight – in some cases in hospitals under the critical care of doctors, but very emaciated and very weak.”

According to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the number of children suffering from malnutrition, pneumonia and dehydration more than doubled from mid-August – when the Taliban seized Kabul and took control of the country – to September. In Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second largest city, severe and moderate global acute malnutrition is up 31 percent compared to the same period in 2020, and the severity of child malnutrition in certain regions is up to three times the emergency rating.

“People are being forced to make very difficult decisions about the quality of food [they’re eating], they’re buying cheaper food, and they can probably afford less food,” said Thakral. “I asked a woman what she had for breakfast this morning and she just said ‘I had tea.’ … One woman last week, who’s a widow, told me that she hadn’t eaten for two days … Some mothers are making very tough decisions as to whether she skips a meal just so that her children can eat.”

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In some parts of the country, destitute families are resorting to marrying off their daughters just to feed themselves. One Afghan brick kiln worker in Kabul told the Thomson Reuters Foundation he received a $3,000 dowry payment after giving over his 13- and 15-year-old daughters to men more than twice their age. 

“I had no other way to feed my family and pay off my debt. What else could I have done?” he said. “I desperately hope I won't have to marry off my youngest daughter.”

The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) claims it has received credible reports of families offering children as young as 20 days old up for future marriage in return for a dowry. 

Two women await porters to help them bring their food rations to their transport at a WFP distribution site on the outskirt of Herat. The rations consist of wheat flour, peas, oil and salt for each family. Photo by Photo: WFP/Marco Di Lauro

“The COVID-19 pandemic, the ongoing food crisis and the onset of winter have further exacerbated the situation for families [in Afghanistan],” said UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore in a statement. “The extremely dire economic situation ... is pushing more families deeper into poverty and forcing them to make desperate choices, such as putting children to work and marrying girls off at a young age.”

The contributing factors for the nationwide public health crisis are manifold. Sustained conflict, population displacement, a global pandemic and the worst drought the country has seen in years have all pushed Afghanistan to breaking point. Thakral said that WFP has been worried about the inordinately dry conditions since the beginning of the year, as failed harvests lead to widespread food scarcity. 

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But climate change is just one spectre. The Taliban is another.

“I think the top-of-mind, biggest worry for people is going to sleep at night thinking: ‘I don’t know what tomorrow faces.’”

Since the fall of Kabul on August 15, Afghanistan’s economy has been in freefall. The country has been cut off from global financial institutions, its banking system has ground to a standstill and the United States has frozen more than $9 billion in Afghan assets. Citizens around the country are unable to access their bank accounts, with strict limits imposed by the central bank on the withdrawal of U.S. dollars and local currency – the latter of which has plummeted in value. Meanwhile, the flow of money into the country from international donors has slowed to a trickle.

“The economic liquidity crisis is having a huge impact on people,” said Thakral. “People don’t have access to bank accounts, their assets have been frozen, so nobody can access their money … Since August, when I speak to people and meet families at food distribution sites or our clinics, where we look at doing prevention and treatment for malnutrition, a lot of people say: ‘Our biggest fear is poverty – we’re worried about poverty, we’re worried about being hungry.’”

“I think the top-of-mind, biggest worry for people is going to sleep at night thinking: ‘I don’t know what tomorrow faces.’”

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The country’s public health system is also on its knees. Save the Children reported that an estimated 333,200 infants have been born in Afghanistan since the Taliban takeover – the equivalent of two babies every minute – while hundreds of thousands of new and expectant mothers suffer limited access to medical care. Just weeks after the fall of the Western-backed government, a mere 17 percent of over 2,300 health clinics around the country were operating, forcing many expectant mothers to undergo risky at-home deliveries. A shortage of healthcare workers and a diminishing supply of medicine is complicating things further, as international funding, which otherwise would have financed the majority of public health care facilities, dries up. 

Such global clampdowns aren’t so much throwing fuel on the fire as they are stymying the flow of resources that could help extinguish the blaze.

Filipe Ribeiro, the Afghanistan representative for Médecins Sans Frontières, told VICE World News that the Afghan health system was fully dependent on external funding, via the Afghan Reconstruction Fund administered by the World Bank. When the Taliban took control of Afghanistan, the World Bank decided to cut off all funding.

“Overnight, organisations that run the health system – that were already struggling to pay salaries, supply the medical facilities, etc – had no more access to funds and so had to severely cut, and in some cases stop, the provision of medical services to the population,” he said. “On top of the sudden cessation of funding, the banking and liquidity crisis is making it very difficult to make financial transactions in the country. People and institutions alike barely have access to their bank accounts.”

Sanctions intended to hurt the Taliban in the wake of their triumph over the West are in fact crippling the nation over which they now claim dominion. In many ways, Afghanistan has been cut adrift. And the severity of the situation on the ground has prompted impassioned calls from relief organisations for international governments to step up and help the millions of people suffering from this humanitarian disaster.

Dominik Stillhart, director of operations for the ICRC, issued a fierce public statement this week following a six-day visit to Afghanistan during which he saw, firsthand, the trickle down effects of global policies toward the country.

“When you’re standing in the pediatric ward in Kandahar’s largest hospital, looking into the empty eyes of hungry children and the anguished faces of desperate parents, the situation is absolutely infuriating,” he said. 

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“It’s so infuriating because this suffering is man-made. Economic sanctions meant to punish those in power in Kabul are instead freezing millions of people across Afghanistan out of the basics they need to survive. The international community is turning its back as the country teeters on the precipice of man-made catastrophe.”

The crisis puts members of the international community, especially those in the West, in an uncomfortable position. In order to provide the requisite financial aid to properly address the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan – Thakral told VICE World News that the WFP needs $220 million a month to mitigate the situation over the coming months – nations like the U.S., U.K., Australia and Canada would have to hand billions of dollars over to the Taliban, their once-sworn enemies, who count alleged terrorists among their senior members of government and who are yet to be recognised by any country as legitimate rulers. 

“When you’re standing in the pediatric ward in Kandahar’s largest hospital, looking into the empty eyes of hungry children and the anguished faces of desperate parents, the situation is absolutely infuriating.”

The alternative, however, poses a greater moral cost. To not act would mean abandoning more than 20 million Afghans to poverty, hunger and mortal uncertainty – as the British Red Cross warns that the people of Afghanistan are looking down the barrel of one of the harshest winters in living memory.

“Financial measures against the new government are making financial transactions extremely difficult, the local currency is losing value, and the price of food, fuel and other common goods is climbing,” said Ribeiro. “Without healthcare or humanitarian assistance, and with a rapidly deteriorating economic situation, we are very worried about a dreadful situation getting worse, particularly as we enter the Afghan winter.”

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Thakral was in Badakhshan, in the country’s northeast, the day before speaking to VICE World News. She recalled seeing groups of people gathering bush from the sides of mountains to use as kindling over the winter months, preparing for what’s to come. Many people can’t afford to keep themselves warm with gas or electricity – and the Taliban’s failure to pay the country’s power bills means an ongoing risk of blackouts and shortages across the country.

For some people, dried out scrub from the side of a mountain represents the best chance of survival.

“That bush, like kindle, will help keep fires alight – but it’s not enough. And these things, once lit, don’t last very long,” said Thakral. “That’s also an issue: to think about these families who are probably facing a really tough time over these next couple of months.”

“Immediately, we need to make sure we’ve got money,” she added. “We need resources, we need to be able to feed people, and we need it really urgently.”

Natashya Gutierrez contributed reporting. Follow Gavin Butler on Twitter.

Tagged:

Taliban, conflict, worldnews

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