Afghanistan 'marching towards starvation': UN food chief

A roadside vendor selling dry fruits waits for customers at a market area in Kabul on Aug 23, 2021.
A roadside vendor selling dry fruits waits for customers at a market area in Kabul on Aug 23, 2021.PHOTO: AFP

DOHA (REUTERS) - Millions of Afghans could soon face starvation due to a combination of conflict, drought and the coronavirus pandemic, the executive director of the World Food Programme said on Tuesday (Aug 24), calling on political leaders to act fast.

"There's a perfect storm coming because of several years of drought, conflict, economic deterioration, compounded by Covid,"David Beasley told Reuters in Doha. "The number of people marching towards starvation has spiked to now 14 million."

The WFP is warning of a human catastrophe looming in Afghanistan if the United Nations agency is not able to raise US$200 million (S$271 million) by September.

Afghanistan is facing economic collapse after foreign countries and institutions said they would withhold aid and monetary reserves after Islamist Taleban insurgents took control of the capital Kabul on Aug 15.

Beasley said the international community faced some very difficult decisions, warning it would be "hell on earth" for the people of Afghanistan if the economic situation deteriorated.

"The people of Afghanistan need aid now," he said, adding that the amount of people needing the WFP's help could double if the international community "turns their back" on Afghans.

"The politics needs to be worked out as soon as possible."

His warning comes as the World Health Organisation (WHO) said it has enough supplies in Afghanistan to last for only a week after deliveries of medical equipment from abroad were blocked by restrictions at Kabul airport.

The UN agency was also concerned the current upheaval in Afghanistan could lead to a spike in Covid-19 infections, officials from the WHO's Eastern Mediterranean office said on Tuesday.

Beasley said he was very worried about whether the food agency would raise the US$200 million needed and that it hoped Qatar, other Gulf Arab states and the United States would contribute.

Without the US$200 million, he said, the WFP would start to run out of food for Afghanistan next month and that 4 million lives would be at risk if food aid could not be pre-positioned for them before winter.

"Our number problem and concern right now is money."

Beasley also said the Taleban had provided assurances to the WFP to allow its aid to continue to reach people unimpeded.

"They have thus far been cooperative. They have allowed us independence, neutrality and impartiality," he said, adding that the Taliban were not taxing vehicles carrying aid supplies.

The EU on Tuesday announced a ramped-up Afghan aid programme that an official said it would seek safety guarantees on the ground and coordination with the United Nations to deliver, as the bloc's executive and G-7 leaders prepare to discuss the crisis in the country.

European Commission head Ursula von der Leyen said the European Union would increase its support for Afghans still in the country and those fleeing it to over 200 million euros (S$319 million) from over 50 million euros.