Afghanistan: UN food agency chief appeals for donor generosity to save lives

Afghanistan: UN food agency chief appeals for donor generosity to save lives

The head of the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) today appealed to the international community to respond generously to the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan as well as the surrounding countries, warning the situation could worsen with the onset of winter.

"We must move with speed and determination," said Catherine Bertini, WFP Executive Director. "Millions of lives are at stake. This week we have made an important start with the resumption of some overland food deliveries. We have to build on this if we are to avoid a humanitarian disaster."

WFP food deliveries now average 500 tonnes a day - enough to feed about 1 million people. The agency is aiming to deliver as much as 52,000 tonnes per month, the amount necessary to feed the 6 million people identified as most in need, as well as the 1.5 million people possibly expected to seek refuge outside Afghanistan.

According to the agency, the severity of the crisis inside Afghanistan varies from region to region, with the mountainous central highlands posing the most difficult challenge in terms of delivery. "Once the snows start in mid-November, most roads will be impassable," Ms. Bertini said. "We estimate that 100,000 families will be cut off from food deliveries. Unfortunately, given the current situation on the ground, it is impossible to pre-position the necessary supplies to last these people through the winter. Without food, they will either have to leave their homes in search of supplies or die."

In response, WFP is planning to airdrop food to the area. However, a number of conditions must be met before this operation can begin. "Before we can go ahead, we need to identify safe air corridors and obtain approval to use them from the Afghan authorities," Ms. Bertini said. "As well, we need to get approval for our staff to operate the drop-zones to ensure proper targeting and crowd control."

In addition, the agency chief said WFP could use a method known as "snowdrops," which don't require drop-zone teams. This involves dropping small 300-gram packets of food rather than the 50-kilo bags used in conventional airdrops, thereby avoiding injuring those on the ground. However, she pointed out that "snowdrops" are not effective if used from high altitudes, as the packets tend to scatter.

Currently, WFP is feeding about one million people inside Afghanistan using existing foodstocks. Ever since the crisis began on 11 September, WFP operations have been hampered by security concerns, a ban on communications equipment, a strained distribution and monitoring system, as well as difficulties in securing necessary commercial trucking, particularly in the rural areas.