The following is a near-verbatim transcript of today's briefing at the United Nations Information Centre in Islamabad by the United Nations offices for Pakistan and Afghanistan (excluding question and answer session).
** Eric Falt, Director, UN Information Centre
Good afternoon. I want to recognize today the presence of Manoel de Almeida e Silva, who arrived in Islamabad this morning and who will shortly take up his new position as UN Spokesman and Director of Communication. Up until now, he was the Deputy Spokesman of the Secretary-General in New York. With his arrival, the center of gravity for public information activities is definitely shifting to Kabul and we will discontinue briefings in Islamabad any time now.
Manoel is expected to travel to Kabul on Monday with the Special Representative of the Secretary-General, Mr. Lakhdar Brahimi, who is currently on his way back to the region.
I also want to tell you about a new United Nations report on discrimination against women and girls in Afghanistan, which will be considered by the UN Commission on the Status of Women when it meets next month. The report paints a dismal picture of the plight of Afghan women while pointing to hopeful signs born of recent developments. It also urges international support for measures to promote gender equality in Afghanistan, and we will be making a number of copies available for you.
** Rebecca Richards, Spokesperson for the Office of the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Afghanistan
Northern Afghanistan may be facing a locust problem in 2002 that could prove much worse than the locust infestations that hit the north over the last two years.
For this reason, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) is taking the lead on a project called "Control of Locust Infested Areas in Northern Afghanistan," due to start within a few days.
In 2000, over 90,000 hectares of land were infested with egg pods of locusts in Northern Afghanistan. Because the swarms of adults could not be adequately controlled in 2001, the infested areas reached around 210,000 hectares. Parts of the northern province of Baghlan lost an estimated 40% of its crops last year due to locusts, and in some districts of Samangan crops were totally destroyed.
Without effective intervention this year, the problem would be even more devastating than last year. The provinces most seriously affected are Balkh, Baghlan, Samangan, and Kunduz-all important crop production areas for Afghanistan. However, the locust threat extends all the way from Faryab to Takhar.
Locusts have long been a problem in Afghanistan. Their laying grounds were mainly situated in pastoral areas where damages to the grazing lands did not severely affect livestock moving to summer grazing areas. However, in the last few years, due to the drought, the locusts have moved their breeding grounds from these more remote pasturelands (which did not supply enough food) closer to areas dedicated to crop production. This shift means that locusts have posed an increasing threat to food security in the north.
Officials from the Agricultural Department, the United Nations, NGOs, and especially Afghan farmers are deeply worried about the potential locust problem this year.
If not treated, over US $ 60 million worth of wheat alone could be lost in 2002. As the overall coordinator for the locust control program, FAO will work closely with the Department of Agriculture. NGOs have been identified and have agreed to take lead roles in the program in areas where they are working. UN agencies and NGOs are also cooperating in mobilizing the necessary resources: human, cash, food and other needed supplies.
The current projected date for the hatching of this year's brood of these destructive pests is mid-March. The project is expected to run for five months, from mid-February to June.
The aid community will have to gear up sufficient resources, since the UN, including FAO, the aid community, and the Agriculture Department lost many assets in the looting following September 11. In the midst of wide-scale looting of resources, local staff of FAO in the north on their own initiative were able to hide some 380 varieties of wheat and 90 varieties of other crops, preserving the genetic heritage of years of research for the future by secreting them underground in safe places in different locations. These have now been recovered and are being used to conduct trials of the varieties in the north.
This is just another concrete example of the resourcefulness and heroism of local staff concerned by the future of their country despite the difficult times they faced after September 11.
** Jennifer Abrahamson, Spokesperson for WFP
Gearing up for the launch of its long-term countrywide food-for-education program in Afghanistan, the World Food Program held a four-day workshop in Islamabad this week, which ended yesterday.
During the workshop, WFP staff met with 15 Afghan and International NGO partners and two high-level officials from the Interim Administration's Ministry of Education, including the Deputy Minister, to iron out details for the program, which will feed hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren.
It was concluded that Food-for-Education is an invaluable tool in repairing Afghanistan's nearly non-existent education infrastructure. WFP's comprehensive program will assist children and adults alike. The program aims to bring nutritional support to children, while helping to keep kids, and especially girls, in the classroom. It will also give food incentives to teachers and provide food rations and wages to laborers who will help to physically reconstruct schools.
On other school feeding fronts, WFP undertook a one-off high-energy biscuit distribution for 33,100 schoolgirls in Mazar-I-Sharif on Tuesday. Some 6,600 kilograms were distributed to all 20-girls schools in the city to encourage the girls to return to school after a four-year ban on female education and to fortify their diets.
In addition, WFP bakery staff are visiting 80 bakeries, which include 20 female-run, that shut down after September 11. Preparations are being made to re-open the bakeries on a temporary basis. Twenty-one female-run bakeries re-opened in Kabul last December.
Rapid Helicopter Assessment missions in northern Afghanistan are ongoing. To date, WFP has completed assessments in 12 vulnerable and isolated locations in Dar-e-Suf district of Samangan province.
Today, WFP assessment teams are moving into two locations in Faryab province located in Belcheragh district, some 220 kilometers southwest of Mazar, to investigate food security and health conditions of families living in hard-to-reach mountain villages. Assessments in Saripul province will begin next week.
Two additional helicopters arrived in Mazar earlier this week. Early next week they will fly to Bamian and Chaghcharan to investigate base possible locations for the expansion of the rapid assessment mission into vulnerable western, central and northeastern regions of the country.
I am pleased to announce that the World Food Program and Afghanistan's Interim Administration yesterday signed a letter of agreement to provide urgently needed food rations for members of Afghanistan's civil service.
Starting early next month, WFP will provide a monthly ration of 12.5 kilograms of pulses and one can of cooking oil for roughly 60,000 employees in Kabul. The rations are worth is worth roughly fifty percent of their cash salaries. WFP will expand to other provinces throughout Afghanistan as soon as the Interim Administration has established links with the civil service structure beyond Kabul.
WFP's general urban distribution in Kandahar city will begin on March 14 and will target some 360,000 people with 3,000 tons of food. Food distribution is currently going on in Spin Boldak IDP camps and is set to finish today. WFP is currently providing food to over half a million people in Kandahar province.
As of today, February 21, WFP has delivered 322,500 tons of food into Afghanistan since October, and 263,700 tons of that amount has been distributed to more than 6 million vulnerable and hungry men, women and children.
** Lori Hieber-Girardet, Spokesperson for WHO
The World Health Organization has received reports that twenty-five children have died in a suspected influenza outbreak in Yumgan Valley in Badakshan province of Afghanistan. WHO received news of the deaths from local residents and immediately prepared to send a mission to Yumgan Clinic to determine whether the deaths were indeed caused by influenza or some other disease, and the need for emergency medicines.
Fighting between factions, however, on the route from Faizabad to Yumgan Valley has forced the mission to carry out a thorough investigation of the disease to be postponed. If security improves, the mission will attempt again to go to the Valley on 25 February.
Influenza is also reported to have spread throughout Faizabad, Baharak, Jurum and some other districts of Badakhshan. WHO is investigating these reports. Influenza is an air-borne disease that causes respiratory symptoms, and high fever- symptoms similar to the common flu. Influenza can be fatal to vulnerable groups, such as malnourished children and the elderly.
Meanwhile, the Afghan Ministry of Health has announced it will host a nation-wide planning workshop for reconstruction of the health sector. The meeting is scheduled for March 13th through the 17th and will include hundreds of delegates from all regions of Afghanistan, representatives from national and international NGOs as well as United Nations agencies. This is the first major national event on health in Afghanistan and the outcome is expected to set the agenda for reconstruction in the years to come. Earlier this month, an initial planning workshop developed the new organizational structure for the Ministry, clearly defining the roles and responsibilities of each department.