Tuesday, December 14, 2021

Facing Economic Collapse, Afghanistan Is Gripped by Starvation

This is going to be biblical, and the world won't care.

No "Concerts for Kabul" to raise the tens/hundreds of $millions needed to save nearly an entire population.

At NYT, "Facing Economic Collapse, Afghanistan Is Gripped by Starvation":

SHAH WALI KOT, Afghanistan — One by one, women poured into the mud brick clinic, the frames of famished children peeking out beneath the folds of their pale gray, blue and pink burqas.

Many had walked for more than an hour across this drab stretch of southern Afghanistan, where parched earth meets a washed-out sky, desperate for medicine to pump life back into their children’s shrunken veins. For months, their once-daily meals had grown more sparse as harvests failed, wells ran dry and credit for flour from shopkeepers ran out.

Now as the crisp air grew colder, reality was setting in: Their children might not survive the winter.

“I’m very afraid, this winter will be even worse than we can imagine,” said Laltak, 40, who like many women in rural Afghanistan goes by only one name.

Nearly four months since the Taliban seized power, Afghanistan is on the brink of a mass starvation that aid groups say threatens to kill a million children this winter — a toll that would dwarf the total number of Afghan civilians estimated to have been killed as a direct result of the war over the past 20 years.

While Afghanistan has suffered from malnutrition for decades, the country’s hunger crisis has drastically worsened in recent months. This winter, an estimated 22.8 million people — more than half the population — are expected to face potentially life-threatening levels of food insecurity, according to an analysis by the United Nations World Food Program and Food and Agriculture Organization. Of those, 8.7 million people are nearing famine — the worst stage of a food crisis.

Such widespread hunger is the most devastating sign of the economic crash that has crippled Afghanistan since the Taliban seized power. Practically overnight, billions of dollars in foreign aid that propped up the previous Western-backed government vanished and U.S. sanctions on the Taliban isolated the country from the global financial system, paralyzing Afghan banks and impeding relief work by humanitarian organizations.

Across the country, millions of Afghans — from day laborers to doctors and teachers — have gone months without steady or any incomes. The prices of food and other basic goods have soared beyond the reach of many families. Emaciated children and anemic mothers have flooded into the malnutrition wards of hospitals, many of those facilities bereft of medical supplies that donor aid once provided.

Compounding its economic woes, the country is confronting one of the worst droughts in decades, which has withered fields, starved farm animals and dried irrigation channels. Afghanistan’s wheat harvest is expected to be as much as 25 percent below average this year, according to the United Nations. In rural areas — where roughly 70 percent of the population lives — many farmers have given up cultivating their land.

Now, as freezing winter weather sets in, with humanitarian organizations warning that a million children could die, the crisis is potentially damning to both the new Taliban government and to the United States, which is facing mounting pressure to ease the economic restrictions that are worsening the crisis.

“We need to separate the politics from the humanitarian imperative,” said Mary-Ellen McGroarty, the World Food Program’s country director for Afghanistan. “The millions of women, of children, of men in the current crisis in Afghanistan are innocent people who are being condemned to a winter of absolute desperation and potentially death.”

In Shah Wali Kot, a barren district in Kandahar Province, the drought and economic crash have converged in a perfect storm.

For decades, small farmers survived the winters on stored wheat from their summer harvest and the income from selling onions in the market. But this year yielded barely enough to sustain families during the fall months. Without food to last the winter, some people migrated to cities hoping to find work or to other districts to lean on the help of relatives.

Inside one of the two mud huts of the clinic, which is run by the Afghan Red Crescent and supported by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, Laltak clutched her granddaughter’s gaunt frame as if steeling herself for the hardships she knew this winter would bring.

Her family has no wheat left, no wood to make fires for heat, no money to buy food. They have exhausted the support of nearby relatives who cannot even feed their own families.

“Nothing, we have nothing,” Laltak said in an interview at the end of October.

She and most of the mothers interviewed did not own cellphones or have phone service in their villages, so The Times could not follow up with them on the health of their children.

The humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in Afghanistan comes as hunger has steadily risen around the world in recent years, driven by the coronavirus pandemic, conflict and climate-related shocks.

Thirty percent more Afghans faced crisis-level food shortages in September and October compared with the same period last year, according to the United Nations. In the coming months, the number of Afghans in crisis is expected to hit a record high.

“It was never this bad,” said Sifatullah Sifat, the head doctor at the Shamsul Haq clinic on the outskirts of Kandahar city, where malnutrition cases have doubled in recent months. “Donors are shipping in medicine, but it’s still not enough.”

By 10 a.m. each morning, a throng of mothers carrying skeletal children masses in the hallway of the malnutrition unit.

Inside an examination room in October, Zarmina, 20, cradled her 18-month-old son while her 3-year-old daughter stood behind her, clutching her blue burqa. Since the Taliban seized power and her husband’s work as a day laborer dried up, her family has survived on mostly bread and tea — meals that left her children’s stomachs gnawing with hunger.

“They are crying to have food. I wish I could bring them something, but we have nothing,” said Zarmina, who is six months pregnant and severely anemic...