Food crisis in Afghanistan

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'When I'm hungry, it feels hard in my stomach. I want to cry, and I wonder why my mother doesn't give me more food.'

The simple words of an Afghan child explain the pangs of hunger being felt across Asia, as high food prices strip the world's poorest of enough to eat. Across the continent, families are cutting back on meals, children are being pulled from school to go to work, and the number of beggars on the streets of major cities from Kabul to Jakarta is climbing day by day.

Here in the Panshir valley in rural Afghanistan, farmers are struggling to cope with the double hit of high food prices and a devastating flood that destroyed the village's crops last year, leaving debris and boulders the size of small cars embedded in farmers' fields. Without a harvest, these families have nothing.

CARE's emergency response program provided tools, seeds and training to help the farmers clear their fields and plant again, and cash-for-work to give them enough money to buy food until the next harvest. But that was last year's plan; after the cost of wheat flour in Afghanistan tripled this year, even emergency assistance isn't enough.

An elderly man breaking rocks in a field stops to take a break, and pulls from his pocket a handful of pale brown blocks the colour and texture of dirty chalk. Dried mulberry paste is traditionally eaten here as an energy food or supplement during hard times, but this is what Haji Nasurullah's family is eating through much of the day now.

'We are eating less. We don't eat meat anymore,' said Nasurullah, 75, with a simple shrug of his shoulders. 'I borrowed money from the shopkeeper so I can buy food. God willing, I will find more work in other people's fields. I hope that I will have a good crop this year.' Strong and proud, the farmers of this small community do not complain, and their generosity in the face of the worst food crisis in the community's memory is heartbreaking. Habib Ullah, 77, invites visitors to his home, and within minutes, two bowls of yoghurt and several pieces of Afghan flatbread are laid out on the table as welcome.

This is all his family of 10 has to eat for the day.

It is still early in the crisis, and the impact is only starting to emerge. But the lasting long-term damage to people's ability to provide for themselves and their children will be devastating if help doesn't come soon.

More than 6.5 million Afghans - more than the entire population of Denmark - don't have enough to eat. During normal times, Afghans barely get by: any money they make goes to food, basic household items, and school supplies for their children. If the cost of one thing goes up, something has to give.

Families cut back on food, which deprives children of crucial nutrition at a time when their bodies need it most. There isn't enough money for luxuries like school supplies, so children stop going to school. Since the food crisis hit, families in urban areas are spending more than 75 per cent of their income on food.

'People are selling livestock and land to get enough money to buy food,' said Abdul Azin, project supervisor of the Flood Rehabilitation and Assistance Project in Panshir. 'This affects their long-term security. If they sell their livestock, they will have money to eat today, but what about next year?'

In Panshir, CARE's emergency program is focused on long-term solutions to food security, teaching the farmers how to use more productive seeds, and natural pesticides and fertilizer to increase their crop yield and protect their crops from infestation. But this year's harvest won't come for another three months. Until then, the people of Panshir valley will continue to eat the dried mulberries, and pray.

'We pray that our crops are good, that the floods don't come again, and that the prices of food go down. They must go down, Inshallah (God willing),' said Nasurullah. 'We cannot eat dried berries forever.'

About the Panshir Flood Rehabilitation and Assistance Project: The worst floods to hit the Panshir valley in 130 years affected 3,549 families. A total of 727 metric tonnes of food crops were destroyed in the floods, besides damaging 862 hectares of agricultural land that was either inundated or made unusable for agricultural activities due to silt and debris. Food crops and fruit trees were also heavily damaged. The project is working to ensure that 2,671 households affected by floods in the Rukha, Bazarak and Dara districts of Panshir province will have improved food security and reduced risk in disasters through cash-for-work opportunities, distribution of agricultural seeds, tools and fertilizers and increased awareness and action for better management of natural resources. The last objective will focus on disaster risk reduction interventions. This is a seven-month project supported by ECHO with funding of € 323,767.