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More than half of Afghanistan’s population faces ‘acute’ food crisis this winter, U.N. finds

A boy packs pomegranates at a farm in Kandahar on Oct. 25. Because of border closures, Afghanistan's pomegranates are rotting in trucks, resulting in losses in revenue and jobs. (Stringer/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

Afghanistan is on the brink of a starvation crisis, with more than half its population — some 22.8 million people — projected to face acute food insecurity this winter, according to a report co-led by the United Nations’ World Food Program and Food and Agriculture Organization.

Nearly 19 million Afghans, or 45 percent of the population, are experiencing “high levels of food insecurity,” according to the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) report. That number is expected to jump to 22.8 million between November and March unless immediate action is taken.

“It’s terrifying. I think it confirms our worst fears,” said Richard Trenchard, the FAO’s representative in Afghanistan. “What we’re seeing here is a dramatic worsening of the humanitarian situation across Afghanistan.”

The IPC uses a five-level ranking system to classify food insecurity, with 1 being “minimal” and 5 constituting “famine.” In the case of Afghanistan, nearly half the population is either experiencing “crisis” (level 3) or “emergency” (level 4) food insecurity. The United Nations determines the ranking by assessing markers such as access to food and the impact of malnutrition, especially among children.

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Crisis-level insecurity means that people are short of food and households are starting to skip meals, but that they still have ways to cope, usually by selling belongings or seeking extra work. When a family or individual reaches the emergency level, those options are exhausted, Trenchard said.

“Children are a particular concern because they’re affected at the time but we also know the consequences of hunger on a child can affect them the rest of their lives,” he said.

Afghanistan’s economy has declined sharply in recent moths, in large part because of the evaporation of international aid when the Taliban returned to power in August. Banks have run out of cash. Remittances from Afghans abroad have declined because of the coronavirus pandemic.

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The problems began before the Taliban takeover. Some 665,000 people were internally displaced because of conflict between January and September, the United Nations found.

Also, an acute drought that started in late 2020 led to reduced snow in the mountains, hurting farmers who depend on snowmelt for their crops and livestock. About 70 percent of the population lives in rural areas.

The La Niña weather pattern this winter is likely to extend drought conditions into early next year.

For Trenchard, who has responded to humanitarian crises in Somalia, Syria and Sudan’s Darfur, Afghanistan’s food insecurity crisis stands out for the speed with which it has unfolded and its national scope, including in urban areas — a situation that could continue to devolve without more aid and an upturn in the economy.

“Afghanistan’s people are incredibly resilient. They will find a way through this, but at the moment they need that assistance,” Trenchard said.

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