Amidst a country recovering from drought and conflict, COVID-19 threatens to increase the severity of food insecurity in Afghanistan. Food insecurity and hunger persist in Afghanistan; many people do not have the resources or access to consistently obtain enough nutritious food to live a healthy life. Many causes of this issue have accumulated over the years, such as a lack of education, underemployment, conflict, natural disasters and the poverty that accompanies food insecurity. Currently, more than 50% of Afghanistan’s population—over 17 million people—live under the national poverty line.
A lack of income results in less purchasing power and thus a decreased access to food, especially nutritious food. In Afghanistan, around 11 million people live with severe food insecurity; kids aged five and under account for two million of those living with food insecurity. Without access to proper nutritious food, starvation and malnutrition can stunt children’s growth, hindering brain development and causing growth and developmental impairments.
Three Main Reasons for Hunger in Afghanistan
- Drought: In 2018-2019, Afghanistan faced such a severe drought that the country is still struggling to recover from. This drought affected 22 out of the 34 Afghan provinces, causing major population displacement because people could not feed themselves. The majority of Afghans typically rely on subsistence agriculture. However, the drought destroyed crops, and markets can be hard to access. Ordinarily, 12% of the population cannot easily reach markets. This influx of people, as well as halting agricultural livelihoods, placed pressure on the cities people fled to.
- Floods: Floods are a common disaster during the rainy season and are a reason food insecurity and hunger persist in Afghanistan. Since March 2020, flash floods have caused damage to infrastructure and contributed to the loss of lives across 18 provinces, affecting around 15,300 people. The flooding destroyed thousands of houses and decimated thousands of crops; displaced families lost their livelihoods and precious possessions all at once. Close communities usually host those displaced while waiting for the rain to cease. However, given the current circumstances with COVID-19, this allows for an easier transmission of the virus. With farmland and crops destroyed, people still recovering from an intense drought now have even less to live off of.
- Conflict: A war spanning nearly two decades has also contributed to mass hunger in Afghanistan. Since 2001, the conflict between the Taliban and the United States, allied with the Afghan Northern Alliance, has killed tens of thousands of civilians and intensified problems of food insecurity, poverty and poor sanitation. As a result of the war, Afghanistan became isolated, unable to really participate in the global economy, meaning agriculture remained the main source of livelihoods—nearly 70% of Afghans depend on agriculture. However, agriculture alone is not reliable. War, along with drought and floods, have destroyed farmland and obstructed markets, leaving people without income and nourishment.
Added Pressure of COVID-19 Causes Hunger in Afghanistan to Worsen
COVID-19 makes the hunger problem much worse, exacerbating an already grim situation. Because of the virus, the price of food is rising. Due to heavy demands and little supply, prices for items like wheat flour and cooking oil increased by 23%. Additionally, the cost of rice and sugar increased by 12% more than it was previously valued. With a lockdown in place, most of those who work in Afghanistan’s large informal sector are not getting paid, so they have no way to purchase food, especially with the inflated prices.
Additionally, more than 115,000 Afghan migrant workers also returned from Iran due to lockdowns to rejoin their communities. These returning workers could potentially carry COVID-19, but also add even more strain to those trying to bring relief to the hunger problem.
Amidst the fight for food security, The World Health Organization (WHO) is sending aid to Afghanistan. The organization operate sites where people can collect food or cash, up to $40, to cover their food needs for two months at a time. Without a way to earn money, this gives people a reprieve from worrying about how to feed families.
The World Bank is also working with the Afghan government to create a warning system to recognize droughts in order to deal with the impending water shortage beforehand. An early response will allow people to prepare instead of struggling to survive during the crisis.
Since 2017, the government’s Citizen’s Charter Program has created community grain banks to help prevent food insecurity during the winter. The grain banks are located in 4,000 villages across the country.
Food insecurity and hunger persist in Afghanistan. Droughts, flooding, and conflict only exacerbate the problem, and the COVID-19 pandemic only threatens to worsen the situation. While there is still work to be done, organizations like The WHO and the World Bank, as well as Afganistan’s Citizen Charter Program, are working to help those facing hunger in the country.
– Zoe Padelopoulos