As famine stalks Afghanistan, West urged to rescue stricken economy

A baby receiving treatment for malnutrition at a Doctors Without Borders nutrition centre in Herat on Nov 22, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

LONDON (REUTERS) - Afghan farmer Abdul Qaher cannot remember a worse drought.

Unable to feed his four children after losing his harvest, he took the drastic decision to sell his possessions and move to the western city of Herat to look for work.

Days later, on Aug 15, the Taliban seized power, triggering an economic meltdown that has tipped millions into poverty and made Afghanistan one of the world's worst humanitarian crises.

As the harsh winter sets in, Mr Qaher's family are among nearly nine million Afghans perilously close to famine.

"The children don't have warm clothes and it's becoming very cold. We're afraid they'll get sick," he said.

The Taliban's lightning takeover saw billions of dollars in Afghan assets frozen overseas. International funding, which had supported 75 per cent of government spending, also dried up overnight.

Banks ran short of cash, millions lost work or went unpaid, and the local currency nosedived while prices rocketed.

Hunger and destitution seem "poised to kill more Afghans than all the bombs and bullets of the past two decades", the International Crisis Group (ICG) think-tank said, calling donors' suspension of all but emergency aid "the biggest culprit".

But finding a way to avert catastrophe is complicated by a slew of longstanding sanctions by the United Nations, the United States and others on the Islamist group, which remains a designated terrorist organisation.

In late December, the UN Security Council and the US gave aid agencies a green light to scale up life-saving assistance without fear of breaking sanctions.

But analysts said humanitarian aid was only a sticking plaster - liquidity must be injected into the economy to revive business, trade and livelihoods, and frozen money released to pay for crucial services.

"This money is Afghans' money, and these sanctions are hurting vulnerable people," Mr Qaher told the Thomson Reuters Foundation on a video call from Herat.

He is among 3.5 million Afghans displaced by drought and insecurity. His family share one room in a camp on the outskirts of Herat. There is no water or electricity and the temperature falls below freezing at night.

The 45-year-old farmer regularly treks into Herat to find rubbish to burn so the family can cook rice and potatoes. He and his wife skip meals so their children can eat.

With a record 23 million people - more than half the population - struggling with a lack of food, the UN World Food Programme (WFP) country representative Mary-Ellen McGroarty said Afghanistan faced a "tsunami of hunger".

Farmers often move to look for jobs in lean times, but the economic crisis has scuppered other labour options.

"It's created a complete catastrophe. It's taken away Plan B," Ms McGroarty said from the capital, Kabul.

"I've had women drop at my feet screaming for assistance. I've met many men who are scavenging in bins for dry bread to feed their kids," she added.

When she travelled to the northern province of Badakhshan, elderly farmers who had lived through 19 governments told her they had never seen it so bad.

"They told me they nearly preferred the war to the torture and torment of the hunger they were facing," she said.

Mr Malek, a 25-year-old farmer from western Afghanistan, used to supplement his income from growing chickpeas, wheat and cumin with casual labour - but nobody is hiring.

He has started selling the few sheep he bought for breeding.

Other Afghans are selling everything from motorcycles to jewellery and land. Some are marrying off young daughters for income.

"Winter will be very, very difficult," said Mr Malek, who only uses one name. "Many people will have to sell assets to buy food."

Many men in his region have gone to Iran. Mr Malek was considering joining them, but he recently received wheat seeds from the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) which he hopes will help him stay put.

FAO country representative Richard Trenchard said he had never seen a crisis worsen so quickly and dramatically, adding that keeping farmers on their land was critical to stave off famine.

"To put it bluntly, farmers don't die in their fields, they don't die with their herds. People die on the roads and in camps when they've been forced to leave."

Ironically, aid workers' access to vulnerable communities has rarely been better. With the end of fighting, the FAO can reach all 34 provinces, up from 25 in mid-2021.

But aid agencies need money and resources. The WFP alone requires US$2.6 billion (S$3.5 billion) for the coming year.

The FAO and WFP said the Taliban understood the massive need for aid and were allowing female staff to work, despite imposing restrictions on other women.

The Taliban's victory marks the first time a sanctioned group has taken over a country, presenting the international community with a dilemma.

The UN, World Bank and donors are looking for ways to inject money into the economy without going through Taliban authorities.

In December, the World Bank released some of the US$1.5 billion sitting in the frozen Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund - the previous government's largest source of funding - to the WFP and UN children's agency Unicef.

The UN has also paid thousands of health worker salaries, bypassing the health ministry, and set up a trust fund to provide grants to small businesses and work for the unemployed on infrastructure projects.

But analysts say piecemeal fixes will not be enough to avert the country's collapse.

The ICG think-tank urged the international community to unfreeze assets, ease sanctions and engage with the Taliban to restore basic services including central banking.

"We're preparing for the world's biggest aid operation, but maintaining economic restrictions that are increasing the need for aid by the day. It's self-defeating," said ICG consultant Graeme Smith.

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