Afghanistan is Gripped by Starvation as it Faces Economic Collapse

Afghanistan is Gripped by Starvation as it Faces Economic Collapse
Afghanistan is Gripped by Starvation as it Faces Economic Collapse/courtesy

SHAH WALI KOT, Afghanistan – Women streamed into the mud brick clinic one by one, their pale gray, blue, and pink burqas revealing the faces of hungry children beneath the folds.

Many had travelled for over an hour through this desolate region of southern Afghanistan, where parched land meets a washed-out sky, in search of medicine to resurrect their children’s shriveled veins. Harvests had failed, wells had run dry, and credit for flour from shopkeepers had run out, so their once-daily meals had become scanter for months.

As the air grew crisper, they realized that their children might not make it through the winter.

“I’m scared this winter will be even worse than we can anticipate,” said Laltak, a 40-year-old Afghan woman who goes by only one name, as do many women in rural Afghanistan.

Nearly four months after the Taliban took power, Afghanistan is on the verge of a mass hunger that relief groups fear might kill a million children this winter, a figure that dwarfs the total number of Afghan civilians murdered as a direct result of the war over the last two decades.

While Afghanistan has had a long history of malnutrition, the country’s hunger situation has gotten much worse in recent months. According to a United Nations World Food Program and Food and Agriculture Organization report, an estimated 22.8 million people — more than half the population — could experience potentially life-threatening levels of food insecurity this winter. 8.7 million people are on the verge of starvation, the most serious stage of a food crisis.

The most terrible indicator of the economic collapse that has plagued Afghanistan since the Taliban assumed power is widespread hunger. Almost instantly, billions of dollars in foreign aid that had bolstered the previous Western-backed administration evaporated, and US sanctions against the Taliban cut Afghanistan off from the global financial system, freezing Afghan institutions and hampering humanitarian relief efforts.

Millions of Afghans, from day laborers to physicians and teachers, have gone months without a consistent wage or any money at all. Food and other essential necessities have become out of reach for many families. Emaciated youngsters and anemic moms have flocked to hospital malnutrition units, many of which are devoid of medical supplies previously provided by donor help.

To make matters worse, the country is suffering from one of the worst droughts in decades, which has resulted in withered fields, hungry farm animals, and drained irrigation channels. According to the United Nations, Afghanistan’s wheat crop is predicted to be up to 25% below average this year. Many farmers have abandoned their land in rural areas, which account for nearly 70% of the population.

Now, as the cold winter weather sets in and humanitarian agencies fear that a million children may perish, the problem threatens both the new Taliban leadership and the US, which is under increasing pressure to lift the economic constraints that are exacerbating the crisis.

“We need to separate the political imperative from the humanitarian imperative,” said Mary-Ellen McGroarty, Afghanistan’s country director for the World Food Program. “In the current catastrophe in Afghanistan, millions of women, children, and men are innocent people who are being condemned to a winter of terrible misery and possibly death.”

Drought and economic collapse have collided in a perfect storm in Shah Wali Kot, a desolate region in Kandahar Province.

Small farmers have weathered the winters for decades by storing wheat from their summer harvest and selling onions at the market. However, this year’s harvest was insufficient to keep households afloat during the fall months. Without enough food to get through the winter, some individuals moved to cities in the hopes of finding job or to neighboring districts in the hopes of relying on family for assistance.

Laltak gripped her granddaughter’s emaciated frame inside one of the clinic’s two mud shelters, which is administered by the Afghan Red Crescent and financed by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, as if bracing herself for the sufferings she knew this winter would bring.

Her family had run out of wheat, wood for heating, and money to buy food. They’ve depleted the resources of surrounding relatives who are struggling to feed their own families.

In an interview at the end of October, Laltak declared, “Nothing, we have nothing.”

Because she and the majority of the moms questioned did not own smartphones or have phone service in their villages, The New York Times was unable to follow up with them about their children’s health.

As a result of the coronavirus epidemic, violence, and climate-related shocks, the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Afghanistan comes at a time when hunger has been gradually rising over the world in recent years.

According to the United Nations, 33% more Afghans faced crisis-level food shortages in September and October than in the same period previous year. The number of Afghans in distress is anticipated to reach a new peak in the coming months.

“It’s never been this awful,” said Sifatullah Sifat, the head doctor of the Shamsul Haq clinic on Kandahar’s outskirts, where malnutrition cases have more than doubled in recent months. “Medicine is being shipped in from donors, but it is still insufficient.”

Each morning at 10 a.m., a swarm of moms carrying skeletal children masses in the malnutrition unit’s hallway.

Zarmina, 20, cradled her 18-month-old son in an examination room in October, while her 3-year-old daughter stood behind her, clutching her blue burqa. Her family has survived on mostly bread and tea since the Taliban took power and her husband’s income as a day laborer dried up – meals that have left her children’s tummies gnawing with hunger.

“They’re wailing for food.” Zarmina, who is six months pregnant and dangerously anemic, said, “I wish I could send them something, but we have nothing.”

After weeks of diarrhea, Zarmina’s youngster had become frail. As a nurse slipped a color-coded measuring band around his rail-thin arm to assess malnutrition, he stared blankly at the wall, halting at the color red: Malnutrition is severe.

Another mother barged into the room and slumped on the floor, seeking help for her young daughter as the nurse informed Zarmina that he needed to travel to the hospital for treatment.

“It’s been about a week, and I haven’t been able to acquire medicine for her,” she begged.

The nurse pleaded with her to wait because her daughter’s malnutrition was just moderate.

Since the Taliban seized power, the US and other Western donors have struggled to find a way to avoid a humanitarian disaster in Afghanistan without offering the new regime legitimacy by lifting sanctions or putting money directly into the Taliban’s hands.

“We believe it is critical that we maintain our sanctions against the Taliban while also ensuring that legal humanitarian aid reaches the Afghan people.” In October, Wally Adeyemo, the deputy US Treasury secretary, told the Senate Banking Committee, “That’s exactly what we’re doing.”

However, as the humanitarian situation has deteriorated, aid organizations have urged the US to act more rapidly.

Last week, the World Bank’s board — which includes the US — decided to release $280 million in frozen donor funds for the World Food Program and UNICEF, demonstrating some flexibility in loosening the economic chokehold on Afghanistan. Nonetheless, the amount is a fraction of the $1.5 billion frozen by the World Bank when the Taliban took control, according to pressure from the US Treasury.

It’s still unclear how those cash will be transmitted to Afghanistan. Despite recent letters from the US Treasury Department advising international banks that they can handle humanitarian transfers to Afghanistan, many financial institutions are still concerned about being subjected to US penalties.

The Taliban leadership has urged the Biden administration to remove economic restrictions and has collaborated with international NGOs to provide some help. However, millions of Afghans have already been pushed to the brink.

Children suffering from starvation and sickness crammed into the old metal beds of the pediatric ward at Mirwais Regional Hospital in Kandahar this fall. An eerie silence filled the spacious room in the intensive care unit as children who were too weak to cry visibly wasted away, their breath laborious and their skin sagging off jutting bones.

Rooqia, 40, looked down at her one-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Amina, and said, “I wanted to bring her to the hospital sooner.” “But I couldn’t come because I didn’t have any money.”

They had come from western Kandahar, where irrigation channels had gone dry for the past two years and pantries were been emptied, like many other mothers and grandmothers in the ward. Amina began to shrivel, her skin depleted of vital vitamins to the point where patches peeled away.

Madina, 2, wailed softly from a nearby bed while her grandma, Harzato, 50, adjusted her sweater. Harzato had taken the girl to the local pharmacist three times, pleading for treatment, until he told her there was nothing else he could do: the child could only be saved by a doctor.

“I was worried and depressed because we were so far from the hospital,” Harzato added. “I was worried she wouldn’t make it.”

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