Afghanistan Adds Hunger to Its Worries

By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, May 25, 2008

KABUL, May 20 -- By 7 a.m., the bakers of Sang Tarashi Street have been hard at work for hours, shaping globs of dough, slapping them into a hot clay oven and flipping them out at just the right second. A stack of fresh flat bread called naan sits invitingly by the window, and the familiar morning smell wafts into the street.

But the scene outside the window has a desperate feel. Customers ask for half their normal breakfast purchases. A carpenter counts out the equivalent of 40 cents and buys two naans, far too little to feed his family of seven. A gaunt man in a threadbare tunic hovers nearby, looking ashamed, until the bakery owner notices him and tosses him a piece.

"When the price goes up, your stomach has to shrink," said the man, a handcart hauler named Abdul Karim. "I used to be able to buy a sack of flour, and my wife could bake for us, but now it is far too expensive. I have to rely on this baker's kindness so my children can eat. I do my best for them and work hard all day, but it is not enough anymore."

As the global food crisis deepens, bringing inflation and shortages to many countries, Afghanistan -- already facing a protracted drought, entrenched rural poverty and an ongoing conflict with Islamist insurgents -- finds itself battling the added threat of hunger.

For generations, Afghans have depended on cheap, plentiful bread as their main staple. The country's principal crop is wheat, and its farmers produce more than 5 million tons in a good year. Although that is not enough to feed the entire population, wheat can usually be trucked in from neighboring Pakistan.

Since February, however, a combination of local drought and regional shortages has driven the price of flour here to once-unimaginable levels -- as much as $50 for a 40-pound sack. Pakistan, also worried about how to feed 160 million-plus people, has closed its borders to food exports, as have a number of other largely agricultural countries anxious to stave off domestic hardship and political unrest.

So far, Afghan authorities and international charities have prevented the wheat flour shortage here from reaching crisis proportions by finding emergency sources. The government has trucked in tons of flour from Kazakhstan, and the U.N. World Food Program has raised money to import 85,000 tons from major wheat-producing countries such as Canada and Australia.

In addition, enterprising smugglers have continued to bring in truck after truck piled with sacks of flour from Pakistan. Sacks are said to cross the border surreptitiously on donkey-back, via bribery at official crossing spots and buried deep inside cargo trucks carrying Afghan refugees and their belongings back home.

Nevertheless, the skyrocketing costs of flour and other staples have deepened public frustration with the government of President Hamid Karzai, which many Afghans complain has failed to meet even their basic needs. Foreign donors have given enormous sums for rural aid since the U.S.-led invasion toppled the Taliban rulers in late 2001, and Afghans wonder aloud where the money has gone.

"Now our government is a beggar, just like we are," said Wahidullah, 34, a carpenter buying bread for his family in Kabul's Old City neighborhood. "It is their duty to provide bread for the people and to be prepared for difficult situations. Even though it is a shame for us, we thank God they started buying flour from the Russians, or people would be eating each other."

One reason Afghan wheat production has suffered is that many farmers have shifted their resources to growing opium poppies, a far more lucrative crop that requires much less watering, little labor except at harvest time and no marketing. Afghanistan, barely able to feed a populace of about 30 million, is now the world's leading producer of opium and heroin.

Last week, Karzai called several hundred farmers from across the country to his palace and urged them to help switch the agricultural economy back from opium to wheat. In interviews afterward, however, rural leaders and agricultural experts said it would require substantial financial and technical aid for farmers to make the change.

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