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Afghanistan is on the brink of a hunger catastrophe, according to a new UN report


Afghanistan is on the brink of a hunger catastrophe, according to a new report from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. The problem began with a drought late last year. Then came this summer's political and economic turmoil. Now some 19 million Afghans, nearly half the nation's people, are facing acute food insecurity.

RICHARD TRENCHARD: You're skipping meals. Perhaps your children are eating, but you're not. You're saving everything you got.

CORNISH: Now, earlier today we got Richard Trenchard on the line from Kabul. He's country director of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization in Afghanistan, and he says he visited with farmers and herders in western Afghanistan yesterday. They told him they're in debt and they're abandoning their land.

TRENCHARD: This is the land that their fathers, their grandfathers, their grandmothers, their great-grandmothers have farmed. No farmer wants to leave their land. But when you have no food, you've got no grain from the previous harvest, there's no seeds in the fields, when your livestock are gone, you have no choice.

CORNISH: Layered on top of that agricultural crisis, he says, is an economic one.

TRENCHARD: In the last two or three months, what we've had is this economic implosion, which has caused a total liquidity crisis. The banks aren't working. Business isn't working. And also, with the suspension of so much development aid, which has underpinned so many vital services for the last few years in health and education, also in agriculture - so all those things combined mean that a really bad drought crisis has now become something far deeper, far more complex. And it's a national crisis now.

CORNISH: Can you tell us anything about what the Taliban is doing about this? I mean, this is their country. They're ruling now.

TRENCHARD: Well, we've worked, many of us, in Taliban-controlled areas for many, many years. And they understand the nature and the business of humanitarian assistance. They also understand the absolute solid and unbelievable principles of - humanitarian principles of independence, impartiality, neutrality and humanity. So the first thing they're doing - the most important thing that they're doing is they are guaranteeing our safety, that we're not at risk, myself and our teams and our partners. Also, they're giving us access.

Earlier this year, for example, of the 34 provinces in Afghanistan, my organization, the Food and Agriculture Organization - we were able to work in 25. Now we can work in all the provinces. We have access. Security's very, very good. We found solutions. It's been incredibly difficult. But aid is getting through at scale now, and resources are coming in. But as I said, the situation is worsening. And next year Afghanistan is likely to see the world's largest ever humanitarian appeal in history. That's how bad the situation is and how expensive it is to address this humanitarian crisis.

CORNISH: You're saying next year, but first, the winter, right? I mean, is there a plan for the winter to come?

TRENCHARD: Well, look. There's - you're absolutely right. Winter in Afghanistan is harsh. It's cold. And also, it really affects access because many of the areas involved - to reach many of the areas, you have to go through high mountain passes. These are almost all blocked. So one of the things we're all doing is trying to get as much of the humanitarian goods - whether it's health, whether it's food, whether it's other forms of sport as well, including seeds, including fertilizers and animal feed - we're trying to preposition them in those remote areas before winter comes through.

We also know that winter, for many, many people, particularly those who have been displaced but also those who are living in remote communities, is a tough time. But thankfully, as I say, the humanitarian aid across all the sectors - agriculture, food, health, nutrition and the like - is starting to flow at scale and move around the country. Only yesterday, I would say, in the very west of the country and despite all the challenges we've faced, the seeds are arriving. I was in the field seeing the farmers getting the seeds into the ground right at the end of the planting season, but it has reached there. But this will take several months, obviously, until the wheat, the backbone of the economy in many rural areas, will actually be ready for harvest.

CORNISH: That's Richard Trenchard, country director in Afghanistan for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

TRENCHARD: Thank you very much indeed. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Audie Cornish
Over two decades of journalism, Audie Cornish has become a recognized and trusted voice on the airwaves as co-host of NPR's flagship news program, All Things Considered.
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