Afghanistan facing famine, millions of lives at risk

Dateline to Disaster
1998/1999: winter rains fail throughout Afghanistan

1999/2000: second consecutive failure of winter precipitation provokes Afghanistan's worst drought on record

April-May 2000: hot dry conditions in northern Afghanistan severely damage wheat crop

June 2001: FAO/WFP Assessment reports that Afghanistan's harvest has almost totally failed


Afghanistan abandoned poppy cultivation in 2001, ridding the world of 3-4,000 tonnes of opium and its derivatives

Although this is a welcome development, it comes at a time when there are few alternative sources of income for poppy farmers and labourers. They can only sustain the setbacks if immediate international support is provided

A FAO/WFP Assessment Mission sent to Afghanistan in May has returned from the field warning that drought has put millions of Afghans in danger of starvation.

July 3, 2001- A third successive year of drought has left Afghanistan teetering on the brink of widespread famine and placed the lives of millions of people at risk.

A joint FAO/WFP Crop and Food Supply Assessment mission sent to Afghanistan in May has returned from the field warning that the almost total failure of the 2001 harvest means some five million people will require humanitarian food aid to survive.

With worsening economic conditions undermining Afghanistan's own capacity to fill the hunger gap with imports, WFP estimates a cereal deficit of one million tonnes.

"Given the scale and magnitude of the food crisis facing Afghanistan, the mission urges the most urgent international response to avert an imminent catastrophe," warned the report.


The assessment discovered near famine conditions. In areas such as Faryab province in northern Afghanistan and the western provinces of Badghis and Ghor, the poorest families have already resorted to the consumption of wild grasses.

Virtually the entire country has been affected with few people spared from the crisis, although the Western basin is more seriously affected than the Eastern one. To make matters worse, most of the worst-hit areas lie in remote locations which are extremely difficult to reach.

In a nation where 85 percent of the population depend on agriculture for survival, three consecutive years of winter rain failure are taking a severe toll on food security. Low rain and snowfall means few families have produced enough foodstocks of their own to see out the crisis. It is estimated that one half of Afghanistan's irrigated area is out of use.

"The issue of life-saving is going to be even more crucial this year than it was last year," continued the report, "rains normally start in October/November. Even if precipitation improves in the next season, wheat harvests will not be available until May / June 2001."

Lack of employment opportunities inside and outside the agricultural sector is also severely limiting access to food through the markets. Fewer and fewer Afghans are able to buy their way out of the hunger crisis.

The vulnerable Afghans, who are heavily dependent on livestock as an economic resource, are liquidating their animals - either to sell for cash or for food. Herders or kuchis have already sold off entire herds and their livelihoods are now in tatters.


In normal years a traditional system of sharing food protects even the poorest members of Afghan society from starvation. But three years of drought have put a strain on the system. The rural poor are falling into debt to buy food - with borrowers having to pay 50 percent interest within two months.

Female-headed households are particularly vulnerable and women and children are now openly begging on the streets.

"They have hit rock bottom poverty," says the report, "Without food aid, it is expected that members of these families will die. Starvation is facing millions of Afghans. The only remaining option is to leave home and join the ranks of IDPs and refugees."

Migration is the last resort for many families. Afghanistan's current IDP population of 450,000 is expected to reach one million by the end of winter. As rural families escaping the drought reach the cities, the job market is starting to buckle under the strain. Most require food aid.

1,000s of others have fled their destitution by crossing the Afghan/Pakistan border for refugee camps near Peshawar.


In an exceptional move last March, which underlined the severity of the food crisis, WFP consolidated its current emergency and development projects into a single all-encompassing operation.

The 12-month operation, launched in April, targets 3.8 million of the most vulnerable people. By the end of June 2001, WFP had distributed 241,597 tonnes of food aid. Another 386,083 tons will be delivered through to June 2002 - although this will only cover the most basic needs of drought's victims.

At this rate, WFP's current food supplies will last until the end of November when a new emergency operation is expected.

WFP priorities in Afghanistan:

  • Prevent development of famine and save lives
  • Stop further deterioration of health and nutrition in worst-hit areas
  • Stem mass migration to cities and neighbouring countries


WFP Afghanistan plans to target 30 percent of the population, although this figure will rise to 60 percent in the worst hit provinces such as Badghis and Ghor.

Afghan households in rural areas, where virtually all agricultural production has failed, are considered the most vulnerable. Food aid will place special emphasis on sharecroppers and small landowners, kuchis or herders and female-headed households.

The ever-increasing 450,000 IDP population will also require assistance. Additional mixed commodities are required for supplementary feeding centres throughout the country, expected to require to treat up to 300,000 severely malnourished people, mostly children.