Afghanistan Adds Hunger to Its Worries
Local Drought and Regional Shortages Drive Up Bread Costs

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.

"In my area, people have no choice but to grow poppies," said Mohammed Anwar, a member of parliament from Helmand province, the country's premier poppy-growing region. "Most of our farmers are poor. They don't have money to buy tractors or generator fuel. They don't have storage or irrigation facilities. With wheat, you have to water five or six times a season. With poppies, you water only once, and you earn so much more."

Only a small fraction of Afghanistan's arable land is planted with poppies, while about 90 percent is wheat. Last year, Afghan farmers had a good wheat yield of 5.6 million tons, but there was still a shortfall of half a million tons that had to be supplemented with Pakistani imports.

Tekeste Tekie, the senior official here for the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, said that with better seeds and more irrigation, Afghanistan should be able to feed itself. But he also said agricultural development has been neglected, with half the nation's farmland still dependent on rainfall and vulnerable to drought.

"Even if every acre was switched to wheat, there would still be shortages," Tekie said. The FAO is developing high-yield seeds in projects across the country, but more help is needed. "Agriculture has not been given the attention it deserves," he said, "but with these soaring prices, suddenly everyone is talking about it."

At the central flour market in Kabul, there is little evidence of a shortage. Laborers unload sack after sack of smuggled flour from Pakistani trucks, and warehouses are piled high with sacks labeled in English, Urdu and Russian.

But amid the bustle of apparent plenty wander figures of desperate want -- women in blue burqas clutching empty sacks, hovering next to cargo trucks and peering into gloomy warehouses, hoping to glean spilled flour from the floors.

"We used to sell wheat from Helmand in the south, from Kunduz in the north, but now their people come here to buy from us," said Abdul Wahab, a flour dealer. He ticked off a list of causes: the drought, the government, the poppy boom, the Pakistani mafia and NATO. "There are troops from 30 countries here, but they should worry less about al-Qaeda and more about rebuilding our country," Wahab said.

In the bakeries of Kabul, teams of heat-flushed workers still ply their ancestral skills with precise coordination. Sitting cross-legged on a platform, they are in constant motion. One man forms a dough ball, the next weighs it, the next flattens it, the next leans over the oven and slaps it in, then waits a few minutes and tosses it with tongs onto the fresh-baked stack.

Zabiullah, 21, the window man at the Sang Tarashi bakery and the son of the longtime owner, hands out flats of naan and drops crumpled bills into a wooden box. Surveying the fringe of early morning beggars, he shakes his head.

"In my whole life, even in the civil war, we did not see prices this high," he said. "Now the fighting is long over, but flour is three times higher. Some of our old customers come and ask, 'In the name of God, please give me some bread,' " he said sadly. "How can I refuse them?"

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company