This report seeks to explain why currently there is vulnerability to food insecurity in Afghanistan and how vulnerable individuals, households and communities are coping with food insecurity. Based on this analysis, recommendations for a principled strategy of humanitarian assistance are made to USAID.
This report covers field work in the north, central, southern and western regions of Afghanistan. Data were collected from focus group interviews in thirteen provinces.1 Comprehensive work in the east was not possible due to instability (although surveyors did work in Nangahar Province). Key informant discussions were conducted with civil authorities, UN and NGO staff, military personnel (Afghan and international), donor government representatives and civilians (traders, shopkeepers, factory owners and workers, farmers, etc.) in fifteen provinces in Afghanistan.
Fieldwork was undertaken from January – May 2002. A draft report was released for comment in March 2002 and elicited many useful suggestions. This report is comprehensive and covers both the earlier report and the additional fieldwork undertaken after the release of the draft report.
Vulnerability to food insecurity is the outcome of the interaction between hazards and people’s abilities to cope (or not) with them. Hazards fall into four categories in Afghanistan: economic risks, socio-political and geographic risks, natural and man-made hazards, and risks arising from problems with relief delivery.
More than two decades of war and political instability have rendered Afghanistan fundamentally vulnerable to food insecurity. Due to the protracted nature of the conflicts, the Afghan population developed coping strategies to mitigate these threats, including migration, employment diversification, submission to political oppression and taking up arms, for example. While the problems of survival were enormous for many people, most individuals, households and communities somehow lived through the many years of war.
Vulnerability to food insecurity increased sharply in recent years and remains very high throughout Afghanistan, despite massive humanitarian relief efforts, a change of regime and the presence of foreign military/peacekeeping forces. Three (and in some places, four) successive years of drought have overwhelmed the capacity of Afghan communities to cope with the loss of agriculture and livestock production, unemployment and burgeoning debt burdens. Unlike conflict-related threats, Afghan households are less adept at coping with drought; among the over one thousand people interviewed in the focus groups, not a single individual could recall a similar drought in his/her life. The resulting chronic and transitory food insecurity in Afghanistan is widespread, deep, complex and life-threatening.
The drought is not over. Although it has eased in the north and the west, the drought persists in the central and southern regions. The north and the west’s relief from the drought is only temporary; the rivers that flow through these regions emanate from the Hindu Kush Mountains in the Hazarajat region of central Afghanistan where snowfall was minimal and the snow pack is estimated (informally) to be at a historical low. Irrigation and drinking water problems will return to the north and the west by this summer, while persisting at alarming levels elsewhere in Afghanistan until at least next spring.
Recent political, military and humanitarian interventions in Afghanistan at times have made exciting and important contributions to alleviating food insecurity. The authors wish to be very clear on this: there are many instances where people would have died without humanitarian assistance, especially emergency water interventions and emergency food aid. The change of regime infused the Afghan economy with a confidence that sent food prices tumbling by 50% on average, an intervention that likely put more food on the Afghan table than all of the relief combined. Where the US military has been able to keep commander fighting to a minimum, the cost of transportation has fallen and the availability of goods on markets has increased. The presence of ISAF in Kabul, while inadequate for meeting all of the city’s policing needs, has been important for providing relative stability and safety in the capital.
These are mixed blessings. For reasons detailed in this report, international and domestic relief efforts have not eased adequately the suffering of the majority of Afghanistan’s food insecure populations. The appreciation of the Afghani forced many shopkeepers out of business and was devastating to all who owed debts, i.e., most of the population. Continuing currency instability is limiting goods available on markets, especially in rural areas where transportation problems (due to roads that are badly in need of (re)construction) generate costly delays between wholesale purchases and retail sales. The air campaigns by the coalition forces generated displacement from certain urban areas (for those who could afford it) and stressed communities that hosted migrants fleeing war zones (especially in drought-stricken rural areas) as well as the urban poor who had no choice but to stay in the cities. The absence of robust peacekeeping forces throughout all of the major urban centers in Afghanistan continues to undermine efforts to unify the country.
The bulk of Afghanistan’s vulnerable populations are still food insecure despite (or, in far fewer cases, because of) recent developments. Generous, sustained and strategic humanitarian and development assistance to Afghanistan is needed to save lives and restore livelihoods. USAID should be encouraged by its successes to date but humbled by the enormous challenges that remain. For some households, there as a role for targeted, balanced and long-term programs of food assistance. However, the bulk of the vulnerable populations will find greater relief from food security through direct emergency and development interventions to create/restore primary and secondary road networks, expanded support for Cash-For-Work interventions, aggressive post-drought programs to restore livestock bases (from the family cow to the farmer’s team of oxen to the pastoralists’ herds); interventions to increase the quality and quantity of water available for household and agriculture use; health programs to address problems of infectious diseases, and post-drought programs to restore agriculture productivity and related employment in crops, orchards and vineyards. Fuel availability is critically low and poses an immediate threat to health and hygiene that will worsen sharply by next winter, while remaining a persistent problem limiting post-conflict and post-drought recovery options.
The depth, breadth and nature of food insecurity in Afghanistan will continue to limit the effectiveness of humanitarian and development assistance programs. Food security will only result when Afghans are able to grow, buy or rely on their kinship networks for their own food and water needs. In order to achieve this, a deliberate and integrated strategy of political, economic and military interventions that are designed to move Afghanistan towards food security is essential. Food security for Afghanistan as a whole, however, does not appear to be the most pressing concern for many political and military actors currently engaged in Afghanistan at this time. For example, there is a lack of coherence among the military (focused on terrorism concerns), the political (focused on poppy eradication) and the humanitarian efforts (focused on food security).
Given current conditions in Afghanistan, large scale repatriation of Afghan refugees from neighboring countries appears premature and unsustainable. Returning refugees may not be adequately informed of the threats to food security facing them upon their return (e.g., drought, limited relief assistance) and may be basing their voluntary return options on poor or inadequate information. Rural – urban migration within Afghanistan is likely to increase in the coming months because this may be the only viable option for settled Afghan populations living in areas where drinking water sources, crop production and/or wage opportunities fail. There is an immediate need to plan and prepare for future increases in drought-related internal displacement from rural to urban areas, even as returning refugees continue to congregate in urban areas.