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Opinion: As millions in Afghanistan face starvation - the world must not look away

We watched in horror as the Taliban retook Kabul, but cannot turn our backs on Afghans, writes Rosamond Bennett.

Rosamond Bennett CEO Christian Aid Ireland

TEMPERATURES HAVE DROPPED into minus figures in Kabul in recent days. For most of us in Ireland, it’s almost impossible to imagine a night of sub-zero temperatures without the comfort of central heating or a warm fire but for many Afghans, fuel has become a luxury few can afford.

The situation is even more grim for the many tens of thousands of Afghans living in tents and makeshift shelters after fleeing for their lives to escape one of the many waves of conflict that have plagued the country for decades.

Yet the biting winter cold isn’t the worst crisis facing Afghanistan right now. Far more urgent is a food emergency which has left nearly 23 million people struggling to get enough food to eat, including almost nine million people who are now only one step away from famine. Just 2% of people in the country are getting enough food to eat each week according to the World Food Programme.

On the brink

The scale of the need is so great that the UN last week launched an appeal for $4.4 billion – its biggest ever for a single country, to pay for food and other life-saving aid.

RS6250 (1) Christian Aid’s local partners in Afghanistan have been handing out food packages made up of rice, pulses, sugar, soya and biscuits to vulnerable families at risk of malnutrition. Source: Christian Aid/OCHR

But despite the raising of the alarm, the situation in Afghanistan is inching closer to disaster. Over one million children are acutely malnourished and it is estimated that as many as 131,000 children are at risk of dying in the weeks and months ahead.

This current crisis comes in the wake of Afghanistan’s worst drought in nearly three decades, which has decimated farmland and destroyed crops. The food shortages are also a consequence of the devastating impact of conflict, which forced many farmers to abandon their harvests in order to seek safety.

Christian Aid’s staff and local partners in Afghanistan are no strangers to working in challenging circumstances and together for over 30 years have provided life-saving and life-changing aid to the people of Afghanistan.

However, even they have been shocked by the level of destitution now facing so many Afghans. They describe children begging on the street and women selling clothes and furniture to afford blankets and food.

‘The edge of destruction’

Organisations such as Christian Aid are doing all they can to reach some of the most vulnerable families. One of our local partners in Afghanistan is providing urgent food aid to families in Nangahar province where around a quarter of the population are currently at risk of famine. Sharifa, a mother of six, told us she worries that her family won’t survive the winter.

Sharifa’s family live in a rundown house and have no warm clothes or fuel for heating. They have faced months of food shortages and do not have enough food to feed themselves each day of the week. As Sharifa put it, her family are on the edge of destruction.

Bibi, a widowed mother of 10 lives in a nearby village. She told us how the family are surviving on one meal a day to stay alive, usually just bread with tea. She worries for her children who too often go to bed hungry.

Bibi’s mother-in-law struggles with asthma and her son is suffering from bronchitis, but she cannot afford to take them to see a doctor. As a last resort, she told us she boils leaves to make a homemade remedy in place of proper medical treatment.

Thankfully our local partners have been able to support Bibi and Sharifa and will reach thousands of other families with food packages to help them through the next few months. This includes reaching hundreds of pregnant women and new mothers with infants who are most at risk of malnutrition.

Response to the Taliban

Afghanistan was already facing a worsening food crisis when the Taliban took control of the country last August. International institutions such as the World Bank and the IMF as well as the US reacted by freezing government assets and implementing banking restrictions.

Not only did this cut off salaries for millions but it made it far harder for NGOs to access the funds they need to respond to the crisis. As the country’s economic crisis deteriorated, food prices skyrocketed beyond the reach of most Afghans.

Banking restrictions and sanctions have tied the hands of NGOs for too long and prevented organisations like Christian Aid from responding with the speed and scale we wanted. We wait with bated breath to see whether the deal agreed at the UN before Christmas will be adopted without further restrictions by the EU and UK in order to allow humanitarian aid to flow more freely.

Beyond the immediate crisis of not knowing where your next meal will come from, the Taliban takeover has caused a great deal of anxiety for women across the country. It’s been particularly hard to hear female colleagues describe the life-changing restrictions on the movement of women and girls which prevent them from living freely.

It’s also been more than 100 days since girls have been able to attend secondary school in most provinces across Afghanistan. We’ve heard from girls how they desperately miss their school friends as well as taking part in sports, which are now banned for all women and girls.

Afghanistan is on a knife-edge, but we are not seeing the action needed to halt a preventable disaster unfolding before our eyes. With millions of people just one step away from famine, the world can no longer look away. The international community must do all they can to pull the country back from the brink before it is too late.

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Rosamond Bennett is Chief Executive of Christian Aid Ireland. To support Christian Aid’s work, visit caid.ie/afghanistan-crisis.

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About the author:

Rosamond Bennett  / CEO Christian Aid Ireland

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