WFP Afghanistan Country Director Louis Imbleau talking to a shepherd in the Balkh province. Copyright: WFP/Diego Fernandez
WFP is launching an emergency operation to respond to a drought in northern Afghanistan. Country Director Louis Imbleau explains the situation and WFP’s plans.
To see pictures from the drought-affected areas, click here.
It’s raining in Kabul as we speak today, and you’re talking about a drought. What’s that all about?
What we’re experiencing in Afghanistan is a slow-onset emergency – not a situation that springs up over night, but one that we have seen build over months. Last winter, rain and snowfall were unusually low, so we watched the situation very carefully as crops ripened over the spring – or rather, as they didn’t ripen. By early autumn it was clear that in some parts of the country farmers had lost nearly all of their wheat harvest, and that’s the staple food for most Afghans. In all, around 2.6 million people have been severely affected by the drought. Many of them were already living in a state of food insecurity to begin with, so this kind of a shock can push them over the edge into serious hunger.
Who are the people who’ve been affected by the drought, and where are they?
The worst affected areas are in 14 of the country’s 34 provinces, along the whole northern band of the country from Herat in the West along to Badakshan in the East, and taking in the central highlands.
2.6 million people translates into more than 430,000 families – so you mustn’t forget the women and children, who are the first to skip meals when food runs short, and are the most vulnerable to hunger.
Most of the people affected are farmers, pastoralists or agricultural labourers. It’s the poorest ones who are suffering the most: the ones who can’t afford irrigation systems for their fields, and so don’t have any backup when the rains fail. Also, many of these farmers don’t have fields of their own but rely on income earned by working on other people’s farms – but if there’s no harvest, there’s no work, and no income… Similarly, those who have invested in livestock as their family’s security asset are in a bad situation – there’s not enough food for the animals either, so the herders watch their life’s savings wasting away before their eyes.
What is WFP doing to help?
First, it’s important to point out that WFP was already running an operation in the country with an extensive relief element, and we were already working all of the affected provinces before the drought. The emergecy operation that we’re launching now will take us through until the next autumn harvest season, and most people will be receiving an average of six months of food, depending on their situation.
Since May, we have distribute dmore than 26,000 MT of food to 1.7 million people in the 14 drought-affected provinces hthrough our regular relief and recovery programmes. We've also been preparing for the winter: we've pre-positioned 95% of the food needed for our programmes in areas typically cut off when the snow comes.
Under the emergency operation we’ll provide food assistance in a number of ways – general food distributions to those who need some supplies urgently before the winter sets in; food-for-work schemes in areas where that’s possible, and special highly-nutritious products for young children to make sure they don’t suffer from the long-term effects of malnutrition. In some places – for example in urban settings – there may be food available on the market but people can’t afford to buy it, so WFP will be distributing food vouchers.
What does WFP need in order to do this?
To do all of this, we’re asking the donor community for US$ 113 million to buy roughly 91,000 MT of food. We’ve already had generous support from Luxembourg and Denmark.
You’ve come to Afghanistan from West Africa, a region where we see a lot of the “classic” images of hunger that you don’t see in Afghanistan. Why should donors prioritise a country like Afghanistan when there are so many other needs?
It’s true, we don’t see the terrible “famine” images of hunger like you see in Africa. What we have here is a vast, vast problem of “hidden hunger”. About 60% of the population is stunted because they did not receive the micronutrients they needed as a child. The human loss of potential is perhaps the greatest tragedy of hunger – especially with children, who can never catch up if they haven’t had the right foods during the critical early years of life.
And apart from that, there’s the security question. Already with this drought we’re seeing the movement of groups of young men from rural areas to cities in search of work, which can be a security risk in a situation as fragile as this one. There can be no peace and stability in this country as long as one third of the population is food insecure – so fighting hunger in Afghanistan has to be a priority.
A Canadian national, Louis Imbleau has been WFP’s Country Director and Representative in Afghanistan since September 2010. He had spent the previous decade in West Africa, and much of his 20-year career with WFP has involved managing complex humanitarian operations in conflict and post-conflict environments.