Why Afghanistan has become the world’s biggest humanitarian crisis
Afghanistan is on the brink of famine because of decades of conflict, climate change, near-universal poverty, and US mismanagement and apathy.
While some spent over a thousand US Dollars on a single seven-course New Year’s eve dinner this winter, over 90 percent of Afghans were living on less than USD 2 a day.
Only two percent could afford a basic nutritious meal. One in two were facing crisis levels of hunger. Two in ten were edging towards starvation, according to the United Nations’ food assistance branch, the World Food Programme (WFP).
Since then, the situation has only worsened. Talking to The Guardian recently, the head of the WFP in Afghanistan, Mary-Ellen McGroarty said that parts of the country are “on the brink” of famine.
Why is Afghanistan witnessing such a catastrophe, one which has been described as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis? Broadly, there are three reasons: decades of conflict, climate change, and withdrawal of the US, followed by sanctions.
Afghanistan has not seen a period of sustained peace since the Soviet invasion of 1979. The Soviet-Afghan war was followed by a violent struggle among ethnic groups for control of Kabul. The Taliban took control of large swathes of the country in 1995, but the fighting continued. In 2001, the US and its allies invaded Afghanistan to avenge the attacks of September 11.
A two-decade state of conflict followed as the Taliban and other militias tried to gain control of the country. A culmination of sorts was reached in August last year as the US completely withdrew its forces and the Taliban stormed back to power. But the conflict continues between the Taliban and various militias and ethnic groups.
The four-decade conflict has battered Afghanistan in all ways possible, including the destruction of its economy.
In the 1950s, Afghanistan’s average national income, according to the World Inequality Database, was actually higher than the world’s average national income.
Then, between 1960 and 1980, the world grew rapidly while Afghanistan’s growth was flat.
Between 1980 and 2000, Afghanistan’s average income reduced by more than half. A minor uptick followed until the 2010s when the national income started to decline once again.
Today, Afghanistan is among the ten poorest countries in the world. While the US spent over USD 2 trillion in 20 years, most of it was spent waging war. The efforts at ‘nation building’ did not always pan out in the best interests of the Afghans.
Little was done to build a self-sustaining economy as evidenced by its complete collapse after the departure of the western forces.
A dwindling economy means limited individual incomes, and that exposes people to food insecurity, as their ability to buy food is restricted.
In 2006, five years after the US occupation began, one in three Afghans were undernourished. Over half the children in Afghanistan were stunted–low height for age. Stunting results from chronic undernutrition and adversely impacts the affected throughout their lives.
Leading up to the present food security crisis, most Afghans already lived precarious lives, not only because of the conflict but also because of extreme poverty. Over five million Afghans were consistently reliant on emergency food aid, even before 2021.
Afghanistan is one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change, even when it did virtually nothing to cause the climate crisis. It is also among the least equipped to deal with the impacts of extreme weather events.
In the last 16 months, extreme weather events, made more likely by climate change, have hit Afghanistan several times.
First came the drought. Between October 2020 and April 2021, Afghanistan’s wet season, rainfall and snowfall were 50% below normal.
Agriculture in the central Asian nation heavily depends on winter rain and snowfall, because only 5% of the total agricultural land is irrigated.
Because of the drought, many farmers did not plant seeds, fearing that the crop would fail. The area under cultivation was down 62% compared to the previous year. Production of Afghanistan’s prime staple, wheat, dropped by about 40 percent in 2021, and led to a shortage of 2.5 million tonnes of the crop.
The drought also made life difficult for pastoralists, who form a sizeable chunk of Afghanistan’s population, as they suffered from a severe shortage of feed for their livestock.
Over 700,000 people have been displaced because of the drought.
To make matters worse, the drought came on the back of the pandemic and floods in June 2020 that killed at least 177 people, displaced thousands and damaged crops.
That’s not all. Floods also followed the drought. In July 2021, flash floods in northeastern Afghanistan killed at least 150 people. Once again, the floods damaged crops and displaced thousands.
That’s still not all. A couple of weeks ago, an earthquake measuring 5.3 on the Richter scale, hit a region that is among the worst-hit because of the drought. It led to the deaths of at least 26 and further displacement.
About 27% of Afghanistan’s GDP comes from agriculture and roughly 85% of Afghans depend on agriculture for their livelihood in this still largely rural economy. The extreme weather events dealt a heavy blow to agriculture.
The US withdrawal and sanctions
In August 2021, the US ended its twenty-year occupation and withdrew completely from Afghanistan in the middle of a once in a hundred years pandemic; the worst drought in thirty years; near-universal poverty; widespread risk of starvation.
The Afghan government and army collapsed. Within a fortnight, the Taliban took control of the presidential palace in Kabul and much of the country.
The Taliban has virtually no capacity to run a nation and deal with the crisis that Afghanistan was in when it came back to power.
The economy went into a free fall. It has shrunk by about a third since August 2021. Unemployment has soared. More than half a million people have lost their jobs since the Taliban took over, according to the International Labour Organisation (ILO). Nearly a million have been rendered unemployed since the beginning of the pandemic.
Many who are employed have not been paid their salaries as sources of funds dried up almost entirely following the withdrawal of the US and the Taliban takeover.
The US began by freezing over 9 billion USD in assets of Afghanistan’s central bank and stopped shipments of cash. Most of these assets are held in the New York Federal Reserve and other US-based financial institutions.
Sanctions have meant that aid funding, which accounted for about 80% of Afghanistan’s annual budget, has come to an abrupt halt. Foreign NGOs operational in Afghanistan have limited access to cash and, in certain cases, have had to rely on ‘hawala’ transactions for their work.
While the sanctions are meant to target the hardline Islamist Taliban now in charge of Afghanistan, they have ended up hurting the people by paralysing the economy.
Afghanistan’s currency has tumbled 25% since last year and has further limited the population’s paying capacity.
Inflation has skyrocketed. The price of wheat, for instance, has shot up by 50 percent fuelled by the chaos and the fall in production because of drought and floods.
“People have no money and the prices have gone up,” Sayed Umid, a shopkeeper in Herat, put it simply while speaking to Al-Jazeera.
In an interview with me on the sidelines of COP 26 in November 2021, Gernot Laganda, chief of climate and disaster risk reduction programmes at the World Food Programme, explained how climate change and conflict have come together to create the food security crisis in Afghanistan.
“You have a compound disaster with political tensions, conflict and climate. On top of that, most people in remote or rural areas are hit by drought. So to our minds, this is not a very straightforward case of saying this is a political or a conflict-induced hunger situation,” he said.
The head of the World Food Programme, David Beasley, recently described the situation as the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.
The UN recently launched an appeal to raise USD 4.4 billion in aid for Afghanistan. That’s the largest aid assistance appeal the UN has ever made for a single country. So far, less than one percent of the target has been met.
“They [people] literally have nothing to eat,” Christian Jepsen of the Norwegian Refugee Council told Al Jazeera. “I hear stories where they distract their children to have them forget that..food is not coming.”