NEW DELHI – Ahead of its first democratic elections in early October,
Afghanistan is facing an acute food and malnutrition crisis and continues to
suffer from the highest number of maternal and child deaths in Asia.
According to a study by the UN World Food Program (WFP), some 1.4 million Afghans
are affected by continued drought and crop failure, adding that more than $50
million is needed to tackle the severe situation facing the country.
Widespread food insecurity is heightened by several years of severe drought
coupled with decades of civil conflict.
"For almost five years, since 1999, the situation of drought remains
the same. And due to drought there is no cultivation," rues Dr. Roya Mutahar,
national nutrition officer of the Afghan health ministry.
Elaborates Dr. Hedayatullah Stanek Zai, the ministry's director general of
policy and planning, "Food is available but its prices are so high, it
becomes difficult for people to purchase it."
He adds that, "This condition has not improved since the past five years
and the water table is continuously reducing."
One of the reasons for the crippling food shortage is a radical change in the
pattern of cultivation, from wheat – the country's staple commodity – to poppy.
Says Dr. Ahmad Shah Salehi, the ministry's external coordination director,
"Most farmers are not producing wheat, but are moving towards poppy cultivation.
Poppy is more profitable for them since it needs a small piece of land without
too much water."
Zai attributes the growing food insecurity to a multiplicity of factors ranging
from limitations on population movement due to prevailing insecurity in some
parts of the country to poor transportation, seasonal obstacles like harsh winters,
a dramatic depletion of productive assets at the community and household level
and lack of employment opportunities.
Predictably then, according to Afghan health officials, the country suffers
from an extremely high 45-59 percent prevalence of chronic malnutrition, high
mortality rates among children under five years (257 per 1,000 live births),
high maternal mortality rates (1,600 per 100,000 live births), and the widespread
prevalence of micronutrient deficiency diseases.
The rugged, mountainous country has the highest maternal and child mortality
rates in Asia, with nutritional surveys suggesting that mothers, infants less
than six months old, and young children between six and 24 months face the greatest
"Today, apart from Afghanistan, there is not a single Asian country,
with the highest mortality rates in the world," says Dr. Patric Webb, chief
of nutrition, WFP.
"The population's poor micronutrient status is the result of lack of diversity
of food in the diet and over-reliance on the staple food – wheat," remarks
He adds that iodine deficiency disorders are highly prevalent, particularly
in the mountainous provinces of the north, northwestern and central highlands
"The prevalence of clinical cases of goiter is reported to be between 20
and 63 percent, reaching up to 70 percent in particular areas. This is due
to the low access to iodized salt in the country," he says.
Data provided by the Afghan health ministry shows a prevalence of 50-70 percent
anemia among young children and mothers and up to 20 percent night blindness
Adds Zai, "Over the past few years outbreaks of scurvy have occurred repeatedly
in the winter months with severe clinical signs observed in ten percent of
the population in some of Afghanistan's remote districts."
Studies show access to health care is very limited, with only three percent
of Afghanistan's Gross Domestic Product (GDP) devoted to health.
A skewed ratio of doctors results in most of them being located in urban areas,
leaving remote, rural regions devoid of access to health services.
Around 75 percent of households in Afghanistan use unsafe water sources for
Analysis of the 2004 National Risk and Vulnerability Assessment reveals that
37 percent of the Afghan population – almost 6.5 million people –
are unable to meet their minimum food requirements, so they constitute the top
priority for assistance.
The Crop and Food Supply Assessment 2004, conducted by UN agencies and Afghan
government ministries in July, shows a whopping 70 percent of crops have failed
in the country's worst affected areas, like southern, western and southeastern
While spotlighting the deficiencies, government officials concede that some
development has taken place in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban regime.
Remarks Dr. Mutahar, "But the credit for this goes to the United Nations
and not the United States of America."