Worrying humanitarian crisis across Afghanistan calls for a massive increase in assistance: UN FAO representative
Published: Nov 28, 2021 12:10 PM
An Afghan girl sits beside relief supplies in Khost province, east Afghanistan, Nov. 9, 2021.  Photo: Xinhua

An Afghan girl sits beside relief supplies in Khost province, east Afghanistan, Nov. 9, 2021. Photo: Xinhua

Editor's Note:

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) warned recently that the current humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan could descend into catastrophe in the coming months, with a very real chance of famine-like conditions in some areas, unless immediate large-scale support arrives very soon to save lives and protect the livelihoods of Afghans. Global Times (GT) reporter Wang Wenwen talked to Richard Trenchard (Trenchard), UN FAO Representative/Country Director in Afghanistan who has recently returned to Kabul from a field trip to Zendajan district in Herat Province in the far west of Afghanistan, about his experience and his insight into the looming crisis. 

GT: What struck you the most during your trip to Herat?

Trenchard: Herat is one of Afghanistan's 34 provinces. It's an area that is heavily dependent on agriculture and livestock. It was an area that was particularly badly hit by this year's drought, the worst for more than 35 years. 

Wheat is the backbone of rural livelihoods across the country. Herat has some irrigation but most farmers depend on the rain for their crops. The farmers I spoke to told me that this year they had really struggled. They are in a really difficult situation, because they have lost their wheat harvest due to the drought, and they have no seeds or cash. So they were struggling. They were all talking about massive debts. They borrow money from everybody. They have no food in their homes, no money, no seeds and in many cases, no hope. It is a deep economic crisis in which there is just no money, and many families are starting to feel the cruel bite of hunger. 

And I was hearing about displacement. Several of the farmers spoke about family members having gone elsewhere, to the towns and cities of Afghanistan, to Herat, to Kabul as well and even outside Afghanistan. But they told me there was no work to be found in the towns, no jobs whatsoever at all. 

The farmers I spoke to were desperate, really worried. They were worried about the next three or four months and how they were going to manage, how to get money to buy the seeds because they didn't have any seeds for their fields this year, and no money to buy food. Or anything. 

This is why FAO's work is so important. We are giving farmers 50 kilos of really good-quality seeds that are produced in Afghanistan. With these seeds they can grow enough seeds to feed their family for a whole year. And how much does this cost FAO? About $150 per family. So little when the return is so great. 

You could see their happiness in their faces when they received seeds. When farmers have seeds growing in their fields they know they are able to stay. 

I met whole families of farmers who had been forced to leave their villages and were now living on the streets of Herat. I have been working in crisis situations for many years. I know that the decision to leave your land with your children, with your whole family, the land where your fathers, mothers and grandparents have also farmed is a really big one. But they told me they just had no choice, no other option. This really scared me. 

GT: What support should there be? Where do you expect the support should come from?

Trenchard: The men, women and children need enormous amounts of humanitarian assistance in the coming months. Just to keep them from falling further into the hunger trap. Hopefully, more and more people around the world are understanding there is a really worrying humanitarian crisis across Afghanistan. This drought crisis, which was largely in rural areas, became transformed to something very difficult over the last few months as a result of the economic implosion that has gripped the economy and country. There's been a total liquidity crisis. The banks are hardly working. Business has just stopped. There was the sudden suspension of the international development assistance, which for so many years had been the foundation of many basic services, including health, education and of course, agriculture. 

So firstly, what we need to see is across the humanitarian community is a massive increase in humanitarian assistance; critical support to keep farmers in their fields, and support for food and health, particularly for children who are becoming severely and acutely malnourished. 

70 percent of the Afghan population live in rural areas, and 80 percent of household livelihoods depend on agriculture directly or indirectly. This is why Afghan farmers also need to have a massive increase in humanitarian assistance. 

And what is FAO doing? We are a technical agency. We have been working in Afghanistan for more than fifty years, working with farmers and livestock owners to improve their production, boost their livelihoods and transform food systems. But today, our focus is on keeping agricultural livelihoods going. Today we are seeking $115 million so that we can provide urgent and immediate support to farmers. What we're looking at now is four things. One, wheat seeds. Wheat is the backbone of household food consumption, but also for income as well. And tragically, although my organization has procured about 10,000 metric tons, which is enough to feed almost 1.5 million people for a whole year. But what really upsets me is that there are 6,500 thousand tons of seeds unsold, sitting in warehouses. These should be in fields. We spoke to some seed sellers. They told us we are the only people buying seeds at the moment in Afghanistan. Nobody else can afford to buy them. 

Secondly, animals are starving. Farmers can't keep them alive. At the moment, they don't have any food. There's no grass available, et cetera. So the second one is providing livestock feed. 

The third one is that because people are really hungry as well as lacking energy, you see an increase in malnutrition. So the third thing is that we need to get as many vegetables and things like that into people's gardens in spring, once the snows have melted. 

And the fourth thing is cash, because people at the moment haven't got any cash from the harvest this year.

If people don't get that type of support soon, they will be forced to leave their farms, their livelihoods will simply collapse. When people leave their farms and cattle pastures, that's when we will have catastrophe. And that's what worries me. People don't die in the fields, they don't die with their herds. It's when they have to leave. 

GT: What are the obstacles when organizations like yours are trying to help?

Trenchard: For many years in Afghanistan, physical access has been a major issue. We couldn't work in areas where we knew people needed our support because of fighting or other issues. Now we can work safely in every single province where we want to work. Access is no longer a problem for us. But the big new problem for us is the economic crisis. As well as driving the worsening of the humanitarian crisis, it has also made it so much harder for us to deliver vital life-saving humanitarian assistance. But we, like all our incredible humanitarian partners, have found solutions and together we are delivering results across the country. Also, it will be so hard to sustain current levels of support if needs continue to go up and up. This is why it is so important that we protect people's livelihoods, especially in rural areas, and that massive amounts of humanitarian assistance arrive now. 

GT: Since July 2021, the China-Afghanistan trains have carried more than 2,600 tons of humanitarian aid to Afghanistan. So far, 10 flights of Afghanistan pine nuts have flown to China. What do you think of China's aid to Afghanistan?

Trenchard: We welcome the support of any country that seeks to assist the people of Afghanistan during today's crisis. As well as providing humanitarian assistance, which is critical, helping those that are not yet in crisis to keep going is also really important. Farmers need markets. So I applaud any countries that want to import Afghanistan's wonderful agricultural products. This really helps farmers across the country. As my dear colleague and FAO technical expert Najibullah Amirzai will tell you, Afghanistan's pine nuts are the best in the world! Especially those from Spera and Musa Kehl districts in Khost Province! And having eaten them, I can tell you that he is right! Any form of assistance at this time and in the coming weeks and months is absolutely important. And we welcome any government which looks to support rural households, farmers, and livestock farmers.