By Marc Kaufman Washington Post Staff Writer
The delivery of unprecedented amounts of wheat to Afghanistan over the past month has averted a major famine this winter, international and American relief officials said last week.
Although they are wary of claiming total victory, officials said they believe the overall food supply in Afghanistan is now sufficient and conditions are stable enough to deliver food throughout most of the country.
"There will be no famine in Afghanistan this winter," said Catherine Bertini, executive director of the United Nations' World Food Programme, which trucks the food aid into Afghanistan. "There will be deaths, because the country was in a pre-famine condition this summer before the war started. But it will be isolated, and not large-scale."
She said the WFP moved 90,000 tons of wheat into the country during December, probably the largest monthly total in the history of the agency. In the previous three months, 75,000 tons were delivered.
The current assessment is dramatically different from the one given at the height of the U.S. bombing campaign, when war and a three-year drought were said to have put 1.5 million Afghans at risk of starvation, and 6 million in dire need of food.
Even before the war, relief officials reported that Afghans in some hard-hit areas were eating their seed, slaughtering work animals and foraging for barely edible plants. After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and as the Afghan military campaign began, food trucks from Pakistan were unable to cross into Afghanistan because of the fighting, and the Taliban banned communications between WFP offices inside Afghanistan and without. The WFP international staff was out of the country for three months.
But food shipments into Afghanistan picked up in November and swelled this month after the Taliban was routed. The food is entering through five neighboring countries now, an influx relief officials say can feed the millions of needy Afghans through the winter. Supplies have even reached remote areas, such as the mountainous Hazarajat region in central Afghanistan, and have been widely distributed there.
"I thought and feared earlier I would be facing a famine next spring, but now I believe we will not," Andrew S. Natsios, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, said last week. "It was caught at an early stage, despite the war."
Natsios credited the WFP with running an aggressive operation that exceeded expectations. Although the WFP is responsible for the Afghan food relief, USAID supplies more than half of the wheat and money for logistics. The U.S. military also air-dropped hundreds of thousands of food packets during the early phases of the war, but relief officials said the impact was more political than substantive.
WFP officials said there was enough food in Afghanistan now to accommodate a substantial return of refugees from Pakistan and Iran. As many as 4 million Afghans are living in neighboring countries, and thousands have been returning daily.
The USAID and WFP assessment that the food situation has stabilized is generally accepted by the private aid organizations that deliver the food to Afghans once it is trucked into the country by the WFP. "We had been looking at hundreds of thousands of people dying of starvation," said James Bishop, director of humanitarian response for InterAction, a Washington-based coalition of private aid organizations. "But unless there are unexpected interruptions or a rapid return of a large number of refugees, that will not happen."
But he said there were still remote areas where food was not getting in, and some sections where fighting made deliveries impossible. Jordan Dey of WFP in Islamabad said the agency has been unable to deliver aid to 238,000 hungry people in and around the former Taliban stronghold of Kandahar. He said armed factions were demanding payments of up to $100 from truck drivers trying to enter the city.
Raymond C. Offenheiser, president of Oxfam America, also cautioned that while the food getting to Afghans may keep many from starving to death, it is exclusively wheat and does not provide a healthy diet. "The WFP has done a terrific job of getting wheat into the country in the last month, but at this point, we have to start diversifying the food going in there," he said. The WFP asked for donations of beans, corn and vegetable oils last week.
Haron Amin, Washington spokesman for the interim Afghan government, said that food was being distributed better now because of the growing authority of Afghan officials, and because the Taliban was no longer present. He said the large-scale food aid would have to continue at least until the winter wheat is harvested in March. Bread baked from wheat is the staple of the Afghan diet.
Even without war and drought, Afghanistan has long had one of the highest rates of childhood mortality in the world with one in five not surviving childhood.
Relief officials said a large-scale famine was averted because public and private organizations reacted so aggressively to the threat. Money was made available to the WFP through the $320 million supplemental bill promoted by President Bush for humanitarian relief work in Afghanistan, and other assistance from the European Union and Japan. Private groups also pushed hard for fast action. "I think the [relief organizations] raising the alarm and doing a fair bit of advocacy with the U.S. government and U.N. system has helped to increase the food deliveries, and broken through some logjams," Bishop said.
Bertini said the WFP's Afghan staff was instrumental as well in keeping the food program running while the international staff was gone. Taliban soldiers took over the WFP warehouse in Kandahar and Kabul at one point, and emptied the Kandahar facility of its wheat.
"We strongly believe that the local staff saved a lot of lives by continuing to come to work," Bertini said. "They're the ones who kept the food moving."
Although Afghanistan is now dependent on food aid, historically it has fed itself and even exported some food products. Natsios said a primary focus of U.S. reconstruction aid to Afghanistan will be to supply sheep and other livestock, seeds for crops, and money for repair of local irrigation systems.