Drought, pandemic, and economic freefall: Afghanistan’s looming humanitarian crisisPublished: Sep 22, 2021 Reading time: 7 minutes
Think about what it might feel like to go to sleep without knowing whether you’ll be able to pay for your next meal, where your family will sleep next week, or how you will make money next month. Now, consider this: millions of Afghans ask themselves these questions every single day.
More than 18 million people – nearly half of Afghanistan’s population – require humanitarian assistance, while one in three people are going hungry. Ten million of those is dire need of aid are children, and two million of those are facing malnourishment. Conflict, severe drought, the COVID-19 pandemic, and economic instability were already causing significant challenges for many. With winter coming, the country’s humanitarian crisis is only expected to deepen.
“I cannot work but my oldest son is a day labourer; he can find work one day and not another,” says Abdul*, 71, a father of ten. “Our main need at the moment is food.” Abdul fled from Bamyan Province to Kabul due to conflict in the area. His family belongs is among the 5.5 million people currently displaced within Afghanistan. Nearly 600,000 Afghans have been forced to flee their homes since the start of this year, with conflict disproportionately impacting vulnerable groups. Eighty percent of those fleeing are women and children.
Nooria* fled Bamyan Province three months ago. “War displaced us and made us move to Kabul,” she says. “My husband fled Afghanistan because of the insecurity and left me alone with three children.” Nooria now lives in a small room that she rents for 1,200 Afghani (14,5 USD) per month. “Mainly, we need support with [household items] and money to pay for rent of this room,” she explains. “I don’t know what will happen to my children, as our future is unclear. It all depends on whether we receive some support from my husband or not,” she says, adding that he has since relocated to Turkey.
Dire food crisis
The United Nations warns that millions of people in Afghanistan could soon run out of food, and with winter approaching, many are at risk of starvation. Afghans have already started eating less as they face an uncertain future. “At least one million children will suffer from severe acute malnutrition this year and could die without treatment,” said Henrietta H. Fore, the executive director of UNICEF.
Several factors are contributing to the country’s current food crisis. Agriculture is the main livelihood for roughly 75 percent of the Afghan population, yet fighting has made it impossible for many people to plant their crops in time. This, coupled with severe drought in Afghanistan, has resulted in predictions for a poor harvest this year. The World Food Programme says that 40 percent of crops have been lost to drought this year, while the price of wheat has increased by 25 percent in recent months. The impact of this year’s drought can be compared to 2018-19, when a water shortage affected more than two-thirds of the country. The previous drought left four million people in the worst-affected provinces in need of life-saving assistance and displaced more than 371,000, the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) reports.
Effects of climate change
More frequent droughts and increasing temperatures are related to the negative impact of climate change. A recent analysis by The New York Times suggests that a decline in spring rains has afflicted much of Afghanistan, most acutely impacting the northern region, where farmers and herders rely almost entirely on rainwater for crop irrigation and livestock.
Meanwhile, data show that over the last 60 years, average temperatures have risen sharply in Afghanistan. Since 1950, temperatures in the country have risen 1.8 degrees Celsius on average, with the south seeing an even more dramatic increase – more than 2 degrees Celsius. According to UNICEF, climate hazards have made Afghanistan the 15th riskiest country in the world for children. The severe impact of climate change in Afghanistan stands in sharp contrast to the region’s contribution to global warming. The average Afghan produces only 0.2 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions per year, compared to the nearly 16 metric tonnes of the average American.
Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic is far from over. According to the World Health Organisation, overcrowding amongst displaced people has limited prevention measures and increased the risk of transmission of infectious diseases, including COVID-19. Afghanistan has already suffered three waves of COVID-19. With new infections climbing amongst the displaced and vaccination rates low —just 5 percent of the population is currently vaccinated – the WHO says a fourth wave is imminent.
Additionally, with a critical shortage of medical supplies and many staff members not receiving salaries, there is a growing likelihood of increased transmission. Additionally despite improvements in child health, Afghanistan still has a heavy burden of deaths due to preventable causes: 17% of under-5 deaths are due to pneumonia and 12% are due to diarrhoea.
Economy in freefall
The World Bank has warned that seven out of ten Afghans will soon be living below the poverty line (1,9 USD/day) and 47 % of the population already lives under 1 USD a day. With banking systems collapsing, some people are already selling their belongings to survive. As prices of common goods rises significantly, many have taken on huge levels of debt to pay for food and rent. Even now the cheapest one kilogram of wheat flower costs 0,40 USD in the market and one litre of cooking oil cost 1,80 USD, World Food Program reports. According to the United Nations Development Programme, the situation may deteriorate further. Worst-case scenarios predict that as many as 97 percent of Afghans could fall below the poverty line by next year.
Sudden poverty may exacerbate issues such as child labour, child marriage, or irregular migration resulting in increased vulnerability to trafficking. Many displaced people have sought refuge in the larger cities and are doing their best to make ends meet. “We really do not have enough to eat three times a day,” says Gul Bibi*, a 45-year-old mother of ten. Her husband suffered a stroke last year, resulting in his dismissal from the school where he was teaching. Her oldest son, who is now 16, suffers from mental health problems and cannot work, leaving Gul Bibi as the family’s only breadwinner. “I make kites at home and sell them to the small shop located in our area, through which I can make almost 2,000 Afghani (around $24) per month,” she says.
According to Gul Bibi, medical bills for her husband and son have put the family into debt. “I really don’t know what our future holds,” she adds.
People in Need will stay and deliver
Currently, People in Need (PIN) is conducting assessments of need in both Kabul and Mazar-e-Sharif. Tomas Kocian, PIN’s Regional Director for Middle East, says “Our teams are on the ground identifying the most vulnerable families and asking about their needs so we can prepare appropriate humanitarian assistance. We are hoping to organise first distributions of cash over the coming weeks. At the same time, we are, together with other NGOs, negotiating the terms under which we can continue to operate in the country.” Unhindered access to aid for all vulnerable people, the presence of women on our teams, and full control over the distribution of aid or choice of aid recipients are just some of the basic conditions we’ve made as we continue providing aid in Afghanistan.
PIN has operated in the country since 2001. During this time, we have directly supported more than 1.3 million people, including 123,288 people in 2020 alone. “We have no plans to leave the country now, in this hour of Afghanistan’s greatest need,” says Kocian.
You can help us continue this work through the Afghanistan Emergency Appeal, through which we have already collected more than 3.5 million CZK (approximately $161,300). Please donate.
* Names of people have been changed in the article for security reasons.