MAIMANA, 8 November (IRIN) - Sitting outside their house in the isolated Charshanbe Afghania village, Ajab Gul's children had to wait until late in the day before the nine-member family had their only meal.
Gul, a 35-year old returnee, is the only breadwinner for his malnourished children, mother, wife and disabled father, has to travel 70 km to earn five loaves of bread to feed his family every day.
"Each day is a challenge and like a game that must be won, Gul has to go and find some bread and the children and I have to find drinking water which is miles away from here," Razu Khan, Gul's father, told IRIN in the Qaisar district of the northwestern Faryab province. "We eat once in 24 hours, here is no food, no water, no health services here and worst of all, no work to earn a living."
Gul's family are some of nearly a million people who are threatened by poverty and a severe drought in Faryab. Officials and aid workers in Maimana the provincial capital of Faryab told IRIN immediate assistance mainly food items was required to prevent any human tragedy during the harsh winter.
"More than 70 percent of the people are stricken by severe poverty and need emergency food items," Amer Latif, governor of Faryab, told IRIN. The governor said existing aid was not meeting the needs of the population. "There is very little relief assistance and if we do not take action, most of the [Faryab] districts will be closed by snow and no aid can reach these needy people for the next six months," he maintained.
The journey to Faryab from northern Balkh province illustrates the problem. It takes nine hours in a four wheel drive vehicles on dusty tracks across the Laili plains to reach the isolated province.
The population of the province has been severely affected by the drought that swept Afghanistan between 1999 and 2002. About 80 percent of agricultural land in the region is rain fed. For most people, livestock, homes and property are all long gone. As a result of the disaster many people left, ending up in camps close to western and southern Afghan cities.
Many former farmers interviewed by IRIN said lack of rainfall had led to virtually no local food production. "I am severely in debt as I borrowed to buy seed. I promised to pay back the money after the harvest, but there was no harvest, unfortunately," Sameh Bai, a peasant in Almar district of Faryab told IRIN. He said the cost of essential food was very high in the local market as most of the items were imported from the Balkh province, more than 200 km to the east.
"We need beans, rice, oil and wheat urgently just to survive until the next cultivation season," Bai said, adding people had started migrating to other parts of the country as well as to Iran and Pakistan in the last couple of weeks. "I have sent my sons to Iran just recently for labour work, " he added, surveying barren land around his house that used to be rich with wheat.
According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), agricultural production in Afghanistan has once again suffered a sharp decline due to lack of rainfall in some areas and drought in others.
Meanwhile, the UN World Food Programme (WFP) has identified this year's drought as the worst in living memory. The agency says the most vulnerable areas lie in southern, western and southeastern Afghanistan, including Nimruz, Kandahar, Paktika, Zabul, Kunar, Logar and the northeastern Faryab province.
"Based on the 2003 National Risk and Vulnerability Assessment (NRVA) and the current production levels, it is estimated that some 6.3 million people may not be able to cover their basic food needs during the 2004/2005 marketing year, " Maarten Roest, a spokesman for WFP told IRIN in the capital, Kabul. Roest said more than US $50 million was needed to tackle the severe drought.
WFP officials in Maimana said, they had allocated 9,000 mt of wheat to the most vulnerable districts in Faryab. "The current situation in Faryab is not good. Drought is the main problem in this province and due to this there is severe problem of water and food," Radha Rankirkar, head of WFP's Maimana sub office told IRIN.
The UN agency's effort to feed 1.4 million people in the affected areas, required an additional 80,000 mt of mixed food commodities, valued at $52 million, to be distributed until next year's harvest in May.
Aid workers said they have noticed that in some areas, crops had failed completely. "As we enter the lean season, this dramatic setback will cause food insecurity to rise sharply and, consequently, the need for assistance to grow" said Roest
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