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19 November 2021

As sanctions bite, Afghanistan edges towards famine

Nearly nine million people are close to starvation, surpassing even Syria and Yemen, the UN food agency warns.

By Ben van der Merwe

Three months after Kabul fell to the Taliban, the new regime’s international isolation is pushing Afghanistan to the brink of famine.

Without immediate international support, the country is set to become the worst humanitarian crisis in the world, the World Food Programme (WFP) has warned, surpassing even Syria and Yemen. 

With economic output expected to fall by up to 30 per cent this year, an estimated 8.7 million people are now close to starvation – the highest number anywhere in the world. That is thought to include a million children suffering from severe acute malnutrition, which requires emergency hospital attention.

As many as 19 million Afghans are already facing severe food insecurity, a toll expected to rise by four million this winter. That will put 58 per cent of the population at serious risk of hunger; the highest levels seen since records began in 2011. The UN estimates that 97 per cent of Afghans will be living in poverty by next summer.

[See also: Afghanistan is on the brink of humanitarian disaster – and the West is culpable]

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This drought is different

Afghanistan is no stranger to drought. Drought in the autumn makes it difficult for wheat to survive the winter, when it is typically buried under snow and reliant on moisture from the earth. Drought in the winter depletes the country’s natural reservoirs, the snowy peaks of the Hindu Kush, still a major source of water for irrigation in the summer months.

Climate change is increasing the frequency of La Niña, a recurring global weather pattern that periodically brings drought to Central Asia, as it did to Afghanistan in 2018 and 2020. La Niña has returned in recent months, with severe drought afflicting 25 of the country’s 34 provinces.

“Droughts have happened in Afghanistan before, but in past drought years, what would happen is that people from rural areas would migrate to cities for work and for assistance,” the World Food Programme’s Jean-Martin Bauer, who authored the report on Afghanistan, told the New Statesman

“That urban safety net isn’t there anymore because of the collapse of the urban economy. Unlike in a typical drought in Afghanistan, but also in other countries such as Ethiopia or South Sudan, the entire country is now in a humanitarian crisis. There’s nowhere to hide.”

The crisis in Afghanistan’s cities is a direct result of international sanctions on the new regime, as well as the associated flight of donors. By the time of the Taliban’s takeover, foreign aid accounted for three-quarters of government spending and the country was dependent on regular physical shipments of dollar bills to fund its yawning trade deficit.

The US responded to the fall of Kabul by cancelling dollar shipments and freezing $9.5bn of Afghanistan’s central bank assets, with European banks quickly following suit. The result was that the Taliban took office with access to no more than 0.2 per cent of the country’s international currency reserves, according to estimates by the departing governor of Afghanistan’s central bank.

A lack of foreign currency has made it all but impossible for Afghanistan to import vital supplies, a process already complicated by the dense web of sanctions surrounding the new regime. It also kickstarted a rapid depreciation of the currency, further hampering imports.

The government has since stabilised the currency by clamping down on capital flight, but at the cost of limiting cash withdrawals to $200 per week. Coming at a time of rising food prices and soaring unemployment, the move has proved painful. Without regular aid flows, the government has for three months been unable to pay teachers and other public employees, a major segment of the urban workforce.

“There’s not widespread destruction in Kabul – the city fell essentially intact to the Taliban,” said Bauer.

“The issue is that Afghanistan is all of a sudden cut off from the rest of the world, in financial terms. Of course that’s going to have severe impacts on people. A bag of wheat right now is 28 per cent more expensive than it was in June. If you have no work, your entire family relies on you, you can’t access your savings and food prices are rising, that’s really painful.”

The urban food crisis has coincided not only with a drought in the countryside, but with a surge in both inward migration and internal displacement – much of which is likely to be directed towards the cities, exacerbating shortages. An estimated 805,000 Afghans have returned to their country this year, just as its population of internal refugees reaches 4.2 million – the highest level on record.

“It’s not too late – humanitarian actors are in place,” said Bauer. “In October, we delivered food to five million people, up from one million earlier this year. So, we’ve been able to scale within a very complex environment in terms of security and in terms of sanctions.

“But the level of response that’s needed is to feed around 23 million people every month, starting very soon. That translates to a requirement of around $220m per month throughout 2022. It’s a big effort, but it’s what’s needed to avoid the most disastrous consequences, which could be famine or mass emigration.”

The crisis carries echoes of Haiti, where a 1991 coup d'état prompted strict US sanctions. The blockade, which ended three years later, shuttered more than two-thirds of Haiti’s garment factories and delayed the rollout of a measles vaccination campaign. Economic turmoil and disease soon led to 4,400 annual excess deaths of toddlers and a 2.4-year drop in Haitians’ life expectancy, as well as a mass exodus of refugees to the US itself. Aid agencies sounded the alarm, but little was done.

“Let’s not make the same mistake twice,” said Bauer. “Afghanistan is heading into a crisis this winter, the likes of which we haven’t seen in a very long time.

“We would have had a big problem with the drought alone, but we’re not in the Afghanistan of early 2021. It’s the politics, the policy changes. It’s throwing the country into a tailspin.”

[See also: Can G20 leaders keep their promise to prevent economic collapse in Afghanistan?]

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