MSF report: Alarming food crisis in northern Afghanistan

The IDP camp of Sar-I-Pol is one vast but empty area of dust. There is a general lack of food and shelter. © Tim Dirven
The food crisis in northern Afghanistan is reaching alarming proportions. Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) has assessed the condition of populations in Sar-e-Pol displaced camp and in southern Faryab province (in January, 1,290 families were interviewed, representing 8,680 people) and found a dramatic situation. MSF also sees a constant increase in the number of children admitted to their feeding centers. Prospects are poor for a population that is selling its belongings, leaving their homes in large numbers, and by and large has no land or seeds to prepare for recovery. MSF has repeatedly asked donor countries and international organizations to set up adequate general food distribution. Faced with large-scale malnourishment, the organization has also asked for food to be supplied for its own blanket feeding programmes, targeting small children and their families. Only a fraction of the needed food has been supplied or promised. The MSF teams have now bought 572 tons of CSB and 116 tons of oil outside of the normal supply channels for its own emergency activities. But feeding centers and blanket feeding are still not enough to address the overall food crisis; a concerted effort is needed from the international community to avert a disaster. Says MSF's Operational Director, Christopher Stokes: "We do not know where the problem lies. All we know is that the food that is needed to pull people through is hardly arriving in remote parts of the north, and when it is it's often distributed poorly. We urgently need donors and international organisations to pull together and act upon their commitment to the people of Afghanistan." A recently conducted nutritional survey showed the urgent need for a general food distribution. Assistance to the population of the camp is one of the top priorities of MSF. © Tim Dirven
These are some of the facts and outcomes of assessments:
  • There are now more children in MSF's feeding centers than before 11 September. The situation in northern Afghanistan was already dire before international aid workers had to pull out following the September 11 attacks. Now, three months after the MSF teams returned, in Sar-e-Pol alone an average of 30 children are admitted in the feeding centers every day. There may be other factors that contribute to this increase, such as relatively more security, but the admission numbers underscore the data below.
  • The percentage of severely malnourished children is high. In January, one in six children admitted to the MSF feeding programmes in Faryab province were severely malnourished. These children would probably not have survived much longer without specialized medical and nutritional aid.
  • Mortality rates appear to have doubled since August. A nutritional survey in August 2001 in Qaysar and Almar districts (Faryab province) indicated an overall mortality of 0.6 (deaths per 10,000 people per day) and for children under five of 1.4. The MSF assessment in January 2002 showed a global mortality rate of 1.4, and for children under five of 3.2.
  • The number of internally displaced keeps growing. Every day more people leave their homes in search of food. Though there is a certain pull factor connected with locations of aid distribution, the squalid conditions in most displaced camps suggest that people go there out of despair. The population of Sar-e-Pol displaced camp grew from an estimated 15,000 at the end of November to 23,000 in January. The MSF study found that 99 per cent of the families interviewed in this camp quoted lack of food as the main reason for leaving home.
  • By mid February, no general food distribution had started in three southern districts of Sar-e-Pol and in other areas distribution has been minimal. Last year, southern Sar-e-Pol was already identified as being particularly in need of food and nutritional aid. Of all the families assessed by MSF in Sar-e-Pol and Faryab, 42 per cent did not receive food assistance over the past year. In Almar district, only one in ten families had received food aid since last winter. Of all families assessed, 42 per cent did not receive food assistance over the past year.
  • Generally, people in Faryab have hardly any food left. A quarter of the families assessed by in the MSF study had no wheat left for another day, and a third only for one to three days. Two-thirds of the families had no oil and 93 per cent had no rice.
  • Those who have food are often on a poor diet. A resurgence of scurvy in southern Faryab in January illustrates the lack of balanced micro-nutrients in the diet of the population. Scurvy results from a lack of Vitamin C. Instead of solely distributing wheat, people should be offered a more balanced diet to reduce the risk and impact of scurvy during the current hunger gap period.
  • Alarmingly high numbers of people have sold land and belongings to get food. Two-thirds of the families assessed in Faryab province have sold personal belongings: household items, livestock and land are mentioned most often. Also, 83 per cent of people have accumulated debts in order to feed their families.
  • Prospects for this year's harvest are grim. Only one in three of the families interviewed have any land. Of these people, only 3.2 per cent have started planting and no more than 4.5 per cent have any seeds to plant. Almost half of those who still own some land say they have no hope of planting it this year. "We are getting increasingly frustrated with the promises of the international community," concludes MSF's Christopher Stokes. "All the talk of world leaders, donor countries and international organizations of their commitment to the Afghan people, translates into little for many people in remote areas. In northern Afghanistan, a new disaster is in the making and can only be averted by immediate and unrestrained action."